Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 264 - A Little Experiment

Two weeks ago, my writing partner, W.A., and I sent a draft of our sci-fi project to our producer for the first time. We had a call with her a week ago Monday to get her overarching notes, and then sent her the Final Draft file of the script, so that she could mark it up in revision tracking mode and give us more specific page notes. Concurrently, I sent the script to the rest of the League for their feedback, having first prepped them that I was only really interested in larger, gut-reaction notes, rather than having them get mired in the minutia of the scrip. Before I told them what our producer thought, I wanted to hear their feedback. I was really curious to see how my writers group's notes compared with those of a development executive. 

I was very pleased with the results. So, I am sure, were the Leaguers. 

By and large, the notes stacked up pretty perfectly. My producer had notes about where certain bits of act one are set, vis-a-vis where the bulk of Act Two takes place; the League brought up the same issue. The producer touched a lot on the protagonist and his somewhat cold vibe toward the other characters; the League thought he was a bit arrogant and callous. Our producer questioned some of the science in the script and how it relates to the characters' goals; my group members focused pretty intently on the science and where it either didn't track or was way too heady.

All in all, they were pretty much on track with the producer's. Couple that with the fact that W.A.'s manager had very similar notes, and two things become very apparent to me. One) with so many people hitting the same notes, it's quite clear where the script needs to be retooled or bolstered. And two) the quality of feedback that the League presents one another is very strong, on par with the kind of observations coming from industry people. Revelation two is obviously less about this particular script than it is about the strength of the group. And I can't be more happy about that. 

Especially for those of us writers who don't have many (or any) industry contacts and have yet to land our first sales, we have to rely on other writers to help us refine our material and get our screenplays industry-ready. Sure, you can have non-writer friends and family read your scripts, but unless all you want is praise, you should try to set up a group of other writers that you can meet with and be very frank with. Had the League just jumped for joy over the script and not delivered any criticism, then - given the other sets of notes we were getting - I would have to think twice on the caliber of feedback they've given on every project and debate the merit of showing future work to them. But that wasn't the case, which means that I know I can turn to them for help and hard-hitting thoughts on the script. (Of course, I knew this already, having been writing with these guys and gals for a decade now, but I'm quite glad the mini-experiment reinforced what I already knew.)

If you're without other writers that you know, I suggest using the web and social media - Facebook,, or even CraigsList - to get a group of writers that you feel comfortable sharing work with. They will be one of the best resources you have in honing your writing. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 263 - Which Screenwriting software Should I Get?

There are myriad screenwriting programs to choose from. The big industry leaders are Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter. Of course, if you don't want to shell out a couple hundred bucks for writing software, there are various cheap or even free online alternatives. Celtx seems to be the biggest offering, though apparently Adobe has a program, as do Scripped (they claim it's free for members) and ScriptBuddy. I'm sure a quick Google search will turn up manifold others. (Full disclosure - I haven't used any of the web-based options, so I have no idea how well they work or how standard their formatting is.)

I use Movie Magic, because when I bought it a decade ago, I was told that there was no industry preference between that and Final Draft. Apparently, I was led astray.

After over a year working with my writing partner, W.A., on our sci-fi spec, we finally got it to our producer last week. She read it really quickly, and we scheduled (and had - see next installment) a call this past Monday about the script. In preparation for the conversation, though, she asked for the script in Final Draft. W.A. replied to her that, nope, Zach writes in Movie Magic, so no dice. As if that wasn't embarrassing, the same thing had happened when W.A. asked me for the script in Final Draft format. Both he and the producer like to make their notes directly in the script - this is quite common in the developmental stages of a screenplay. Hell, even I scribble all over the page when editing. Without the file in front of them, they would either have to write over a pdf, then scan and email it out, or write all their notes in a word document and then hope they sync up with the script. 

Either way, the effort to markup a script is not ideal. And when something isn't technologically ideal, it's an inconvenience. Luckily for me, both W.A. and our producer are quite accommodating and understanding; W.A. even said, to paraphrase, "Don't worry about it, Final Draft just managed to pull ahead in the past few years." The rival programs are supposed to be able to convert screenplays from one format to the other, but the fact is that neither does. To convert a Movie Magic screenplay into a Final Draft one, you first need to save it as an rtf file, which both programs can do and can import. Then, as W.A. did last night, Final Draft can import it practically seamlessly. 

Facility with the workaround solution aside, I can't ignore the fact that of the two industry professionals I'm working with on this project, neither is using Movie Magic, and both assumed I was on Final Draft. Ultimately, though we were able to convert the script to Final Draft easily, the software question left me a bit red faced and feeling more a rookie than I think I am at this point. 

A word in Movie Magic's defense, though - I love the software. For ten years now, I've written screenplays (and a few plays) on it with little hassle or trouble. The version I have, 4.5.3 (they are now on 6), doesn't allow all title page features, for some reason, so I have a bare-bones formatting template to work with there. Otherwise, I really don't have any complaints about it, and using the program has become second nature to me. I haven't used Final Draft, so I'm not sure what the differences are, but I can't imagine they're too great in terms of general functionality or appearance. If you're weighing your options and looking to acquire some screenwriting software, know that I believe you will be quite happy with the user interface and functionality of Movie Magic Screenwriter, especially, I assume, the latest version. However, it's important to know that it seems the tug of war has crossed the line in Final Draft's favor, and that is nothing to overlook. 

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 262 - Three Hours in a Cafe

Conducting a page-by-page review of a 109 page screenplay is not as taxing as you might initially assume. Or, it's way more so. Depends on your impression of how long that would take. Either way, it's how my collaborator, W.A. and I spent the hours between noon and 3pm last Thursday.

I took the train just outside the city to Westchester, where there's a bit of an industry glob. W.A. took me to a cafe, where immediately I overheard the diners next to us discussing production tiers and projects of varying budget sizes. I grabbed us a couple coffees, as W.A. replied to a few quick emails about SXSW, which he flew down for this year. 

We started with a couple big notes on the script overall - that pesky scene in early Act One that I described in previous posts still wasn't where it needed to be, though it was close, so we focused on that a while. There were a couple other beats here and there, but before too long, we were able to jump into the nitty-gritty. 

Starting on page one... actually, scratch that; we started on the  title page, deciding credit placement for the draft. Then, we went through and checked our edits against one another's. "They would say this word, not this for the science." Or, "I don't think we need that description, but should use a super instead." Page by page by page. Some changes would inform others, but for the most part, the edits were localized enough to treat autonomously. 

Things got a bit more involved in the second half of Act Two. Any of us who has written a screenplay knows that it's the quarter of the story that follows the midpoint that can be hardest to structure. You have to keep the pace going, while also giving the characters a breather from whatever just ruined their plans or made their day on page 60. More so, you have to make sure that they audience continues to receive new information. Your characters can't just sit around talking about what happened. They have to do something about it. Or at least figure out what they want to do about it later. Most importantly, you can't duplicate scenes or information - this rule goes for the entire screenplay, but is especially true for this portion of the script, wherein a lot of the earlier dots are starting to connect.

W.A. had some great suggestions for collapsing two scenes into one, or otherwise moving information around so that the story continues to build without slowing, but that we got to keep the larger emotional beats. I went home feeling really jazzed about the changes (and had falsely lured myself into believing that they would only take an hour or two to implement). I wound up dedicating much of the weekend to revising everything, and the hard work seemed to pay off. I'm still not sure whether all of the science adds up, or if the protagonist's and antagonist's plans track throughout the entire script, but that's why we're showing the script to our producer. She gives great notes, and if she says she's confused or something doesn't add up, then we'll know right away it needs work.

Until I hear back from her, I'll have a little time to work on other ideas, which have been simmering for the past year, since I got on board with this one.  

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

The Writing Week (Vol. 6) part 261 - Prepping for the Page by Page

Almost one year ago to the day (give or take a week), I had my first meeting with my now writing partner, writer/director/actor, W.A. Since then, I've churned out eight versions of outlines, two major revisions of the script, and five smaller edited versions of the screenplay. Throughout it all, W.A. has been right there beside me - not literally, with the exception of a few times, but via email, phone, and text. It's been a pretty great process.

For nearly two months now, we've been really close with the script to where we think it needs to be. Before we send it to our producer for her review and notes, though, we want to make sure that every potential question or red flag has been addressed. W.A. has been really adamant that we not send it out until everything has been ironed out, and while part of me has gotten impatient at times, I can't deny that he's right in this inclination. Our protagonist's character was close, but not 100% clear or solid yet; W.A. knows that our producer - who has an eagle eye for structure and character - will immediately point out those shortcomings. Why waste her time, or ours, by giving her something that still has a few wrinkles in it?

Two more weeks, then, spent on addressing our protagonist and his desires, fears, and motivations. When I went into that round of revisions, I thought the chore ahead of me was a relatively minor one, due to how solid the structure of the script it. And I was right - to a degree. The structure didn't change, but almost every single subsequent scene (I was addressing something in early act one) did. Dialogue changed. Actions changed. Expressions and desires changed. Oddly, those adjustments imbued the script with a lot of organic foreshadowing, which I personally believe to be a good thing. His actions began to carry more and more weight, certain lines naturally developed subtext, and the unspoken lines became that much more weighted. 

Whether or not W.A. agrees (or if it tracks as well as I thought it did when I read and sent it to him on Sunday), we'll see on Thursday. He and I have blocked out a four hour chunk of time in the middle of the day to sit down and go through the script page by page, making sure everything reads as it should, makes sense, and carries from page one through 110. It should be yet another step in what has thus far been a very informative and engaging collaborative process.