Monday, March 28, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 169 - Completed My Next Outline

After a long couple of weeks in which moss seemed to grow all over my horror spec's outline, I switched over to my medieval action idea. I'm pleased to say that, unlike it's belligerent brother, this one seemed to come together naturally for me. It was a pleasant change of pace.

Of course, nothing's ever perfect. I spoke to my manager today, and he brought up some good points about it. Act Three (really, the last third of the outline) works well. However, the bits and pieces leading up to it - you know, just act one and the majority of act two - still need attention. I actually had an inkling something like this was going to happen, because I felt too confidently about the script; and if experience tells me anything, it's that the projects I believe to be the least flawed are often the ones that people most rapidly point out the shortcomings of. And I am glad they do.

In this case, my manager made some good points about my protagonist being too saintly. He lives in a world where corruption and murder are commonplace, and I tried to set him apart from all of it. The truth, though, is that I didn't fully flesh out either his backstory or what I was trying to achieve with certain early beats. A protagonist shouldn't be without faults. That's, like, writing 101 (and despite that, it's easy to overlook it sometimes). Not that my guy's totally pure in this script; quite the opposite, in fact. Only, I did a crappy job of getting that point across, and my manager was spot on in calling me on that, especially since I hope to delve into pages soon.

Similarly, my act two - that evil, no good, bully of an act - needs more. It's a simple story, really, but that doesn't mean a simpleton should be able to write it. In order to forge a compelling world and sympathetic characters, I need more from the plot. Another forehead smacking duh. 

The good news is my mind is already working hard at solving the protagonist issue. It's quite possible - nay, probable - that the fixes to act two will come from the improvements to the character and the events unfolding in act one. One thing will naturally follow the other, like weight loss from exercise or regrettable texts from too many pitchers. The other bit of good news is that this project has risen above the horror one (which I still have some major holdups about) as the likely contender for my next script. Now just to work out a few kinks, and hopefully pages will spring forth soon.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 168 - How to Write and Use an Outline

At first, when I was still in school for writing, I openly doubted the importance of outlines. To me, they were suffocating documents that hampered my experience writing a script; I preferred having the story unfold for me as I went along, each day a surprise as to what came next. An outline meant that I would just sit down and bang out the details of a scene that I had already figured out, with little surprise of what was to come. The budding, less-wise writer in me thought that took any sort of art out of writing. 

More recently, as I have improved as a writer, I've come to see the great importance that outlining plays in my technique. Some writers refuse to use them; others outline until there's no room left for changes, and burn through writing the actual script. I, on the other hand, think I've come to learn that there's a comfortable middle ground to work in. I'll outline until I have more than just a loose structure of the film. The document I prepare gives an overall sense of what beats fall where and what happens in them, so it's pretty detailed. However, it's also fluid; that means that when I sit down to produce actual screenplay pages, I don't take the outline as gospel. Case in point: when I wrote my firefighter spec a while ago, I realized before I had even finished the first page that an entire component of the story was missing from the outline. Luckily, the structure I had mapped out was successful enough that it afforded obvious places to include these new characters I was adding, and allowed certain beats to be molded to incorporate them. This flexible outline approach is great - it gets me writing with little hesitation about what the next day will bring, but it also allows me time to problem-solve as I go along.

I've spent the past few weeks talking about various stages of the multiple outlines I'm working on, but I realized I have yet to really delve into what that looks like on the page. For a quick snapshot of what those look like - and, mind you, I have submitted both forms to my manager, so this is what people in the industry have seen - there are two main types of outlines I write. Often, I'll do one of each for each project I'm working on. 

The first type of outline is a pretty straight forward, scene by scene breakdown. It will look something like this:
-Vietnam, 1972. Mark stands at the edge of a battlefield. He and his buddies are tense. They pass a joint, trying to calm down. Hushed small talk.
-BOOM a mortar round lands not far off. The trees erupt with gunfire.
-In the battle, Mark goes down with a shot to the gut.
-Later, in the field hospital, Mark recovers. A nurse stands nearby. He checks her out.

I tend to conceive of these lines as shots, almost, multiple beats within a sequence. The guys hanging around talking might be a page or two. The mortar round might be a half page. The battle will be a few pages, culminating in Mark's injury. The next scene we see opens in the hospital. Depending on the detail I put into each scene, this type of outline might be 6-10 pages. I'll mark a few tentpole scenes for myself with the following: ACT ONE, PAGE TEN (or INCITING INCIDENT), ACT TWO, MIDPOINT, and ACT THREE. More than anything, those demarcations are to help me with my page count targets. Acto Two should begin between 25 and 30, midpoint will land at 50 or 60 (depending on total count), and Act Three at 75-90. 

The other kind of outline is all prose. This approach will convert the beats into a narrative that reads like a short story. Again, this might be 6-8 pages. My goal with this is to see how the story checks out as a narrative. Sometimes, the beats make sense as bullet point, but reading and writing it the other way makes it easy to see where something's missing or redundant. This approach is also the one my manager tends to favor, and converting the outlines has proven helpful for me. I tend to think out my story in narrative terms a lot, and then convert it to the beat format, so half the work is already done by the time I sit down to work it out as a short story.

Anyway, hope that's helpful. What approach to outlining do you take - if you take one at all?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spec Market Analysis - 2010 Sales and Current Progress

The prolific Scott Myers, over at Go Into the Story, has done another incredible job tracking the spec market. If you haven't read it, a) I suggest you do so, and b) here's a bit of a recap.

First, while we posted a 2010 spec sale analysis a while ago, we didn't follow up on it - even though it only looked at the first ten months of 2010. Granted, the end of the year tends to be pretty slow in terms of acquisitions, due to festival circuits winding down, the holidays, and money drains. Still, it helps to get a year-end picture of the market.

Myers' breakdown of the 2010 spec market is really great. (Point of clarification for anyone who needs it - these sales are for original material, no sequels or adaptations.) First off, he offers a breakdown by genre, compared side by side with 2009 and 2008. The sad fact is that the industry went from 88 specs sold in 2008, to 68 the next year, and down to 55 in 2010. That's a 37.5% decrease in two years. The non-mathematical way of saying this, is that "it blows."

You can see the breakdown here:
2008 (88 sales)

2009 (68 sales)

2010 (55 sales)

The next breakdown is by studio. This list is helpful and interesting to look at, but not quite as useful as some of the other data, since most writers are not submitting directly to these companies. (If you're querying studios directly without invites to do so... let me know how that's working for you, as it's considered a major no-no and, in many cases, rookie move.) Your rep will target these buyers, and just because Universal might have gone from 6 spec purchases to 1, that does not mean that you won't be that one next year if you have the right material and team.

The studio info brings us to the next bit of data, which really useful for anyone looking to break into the industry through querying reps - an analysis of the sales by representatives. This list includes both managers and agents, and as he advises, the numbers might not quite add up, since many writers will have both, rather than one or the other. When you're trying to get representation, pay attention to which managers and agents seem to have the most success within the market now. Of course, managers will often handle far fewer clients than an agency, so a smaller number of sales via one of those companies is not a huge issues. (Personally, I feel that new writers should gravitate more toward managers to begin with, but that's a post for a later time.)

The study concludes with two final bits of info. The first is a look at the top sales by price tag. While it's fun to dream about what's possible with that first big sale, keep in mind that everything has to be in place for something like this to happen - talent and directors attached, interest from more than just one buyer, the right material at the right time. Otherwise, you can wind up in an option scenario, like the one I discussed two weeks ago.

Finally, Myers takes a look at the sales by first-time writers. This is good info to have, especially the bits about their history. While not full biographies, some of these posts shed a bit of light on how these scribes landed that first big sale.

Now that the detailed 2010 analysis is done, let's take a quick look - again, through Go Into the Story - at what 2011 is shaping up to be. First off, the good news (though it's all relative and must be looked at in the greater context of the industry as a whole), is that there were already 6 spec sales made in one week in March! That's ridiculous. And ridiculously good, especially when taken in context of the preceding year's stats. More so, though, Myers links to this article, which hints that the market in general might be heating up for 2011. Whether that means that 2011 will end at the same level as 2009 or even 2008 has yet to be seen, but after a year or more of doom and gloom, it's nice to know that at least some insiders are noting a change for the better.

In light of all this info, I'll borrow a phrase from our old friend, LoKor: "Write on."

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 167 - Make your Writers Group Work for You

The League is, first and foremost, a writers group. Obviously, this blog is a big component of what we do; but we initially came together to share pages. The marketing and information sharing is not the glue that holds us together. 

Recently, we've been firming up our schedule, so as to ensure that meetings aren't dropped or missed. We cemented our meeting date as the second Tuesday of each month. (In the past, we somewhat haphazardly tried to meet every two weeks. While the frequency of the meetings was great at first, it became difficult to maintain. More so, though, the meetings became less productive. Whereas we might have a full script to read one week, the next meeting might see ten pages from one person and a brief outline from another. This can be great, but as we all matured as writers, we found the need to present full or at least half drafts greater than showing off the first ten pages. Thus, the meetings became less frequent, as we frequently had less we wanted to show for them. The end result was that we were meeting irregularly, often shifting dates, and attendance was not always high.) 

The regular schedule has had the obvious effect of bringing people together more readily. We had one snafu with our February meeting and had to change it, but now people know that they have to clear a certain day of the month for the meetings, and they have a week before that date to get pages out. With the stress or confusion of scheduling the meetings out of the way, it's much easier to just focus on the pages for them.

We met last week. The only piece of material on the agenda was the outline for my horror spec. Typically, our group just dives right into notes. We're at a place where we no longer even devote a lot of time to what worked. In the formative days of a writers group, positive feedback is essential. though it's still helpful, we're all comfortable enough with each other to bypass that and go right to the trouble areas. However, this meeting was a bit different. I knew that there would be specific notes on what wasn't working, but getting those notes was not my priority. Rather, I wanted to have a more open, broader discussion on the script as a whole.

I feel like there are a number of directions I can take the script, and while the one I'm pursuing seems the most logical from a narrative point of view, I wanted to know what the rest of the group thought. I really like the idea that drives the script, and my biggest concern was whether or not it felt underused. Certainly, I didn't want everyone coming away with the opinion that the idea was cool, but the execution was less original. Luckily, that wasn't the case. I prefaced the meeting with an email to the group saying what I was looking for and what kind of discussion I wanted to have. I knew what I needed from the meeting, and the group gave it to me. If you have a writers group (I strongly suggest you find a few folks to start one up with if you don't), presenting them with what you need to best develop your material is a great way to make it work for you.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 166 - Learned Some Things About Spec Sales

For a while now, the trades, blogs, and industry commentaries have been awash with indicators about how weak the spec market is. The basic notion is that this is an awful time to try and break in as a new writer with a spec. Unless that script is pure gold and your reps can get A-List talent and directors attached, you're basically s.o.l. (Tomorrow, we'll relay some interesting data Scott Myers collected over at Go Into The Story about the market trends in the past few years.)

Granted, the above shouldn't stop any of you from writing. It's just the reality of the market right now, and as an aspiring or emerging writer, you'll do yourself a major service to know what kind of situation you're getting yourself into. Times are tough now, but there are still fresh writers making high-six or seven figure deals, and there's absolutely no reason that you can't be counted among them some day (hopefully soon). 

Last week, I had a call with my manager, which shed more light upon the spec climate. The context of the discussion: a big-time producer and his business partner are interested in my post-Apocalyptic spec. Right now, their lawyers and my independent producers who brought the spec to them are trying to negotiate a handshake deal. If all terms are agreed upon - the terms are basically to determine what kind of credits and rights the two independent producers and the big-time producer will have before any sale is made, so that everyone knows what to expect and what their role will be - the big producer will essentially steer the ship; his business partner will spearhead getting the script out there (using the producer's name and their company's reputation), and when need be, the producer will take calls or meetings.

The ideal outcome is that the big-time producer and his business partner get the script out to talent and directors, who then come on board. With those elements attached, the producer brings the package (i.e. the script, leading actor, and director - a project ready to go) to a studio. Hopefully, they go to more than one studio, and garner interest from a handful of buyers. This is what we really want, because, as my manager explained to me, the alternative is less exciting.

Assuming we can't get the stars attached or receive interest from only one studio, what we might be looking at is an option, rather than a sale. While still cool to have a script optioned by a major studio, the result (rather than, say, a $500,000 sale) would potentially be a $10,000 option for 6 or 12 or 18 or even 24 months. To me, the money isn't so much a concern (who wouldn't want $10K?), as the idea that the material is locked away - possibly undergoing major development - for up to two years. I trust everyone behind me and my script would be in the studio system at that point, so there's no cause for major complaint. It's just a sign of the times. Whereas something might have sold outright before so that a studio could remove it from the market, now it might be optioned, worked, locked away, and then possibly produced. 

But that's a long way off. For now, I just have to sit back and wait to hear if the two producing parties agree on terms. If they do, my script - and, therefore, I - will gain exposure within the industry, and that's what we're going for.