Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Aspiring screenwriter tip of the week: Avoid writing autobiographical scripts

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down a manhole and die."

This famous Mel Brooks joke illustrates an important point. Everything that happens to you is the most dramatic thing in the world -- to you. This is why, in general, you should avoid writing autobiographical scripts. You simply don't have the perspective to see which parts of your life story (if any) might be compelling to a wider audience. You don't want your screenplay to be the literary equivalent of that bore at the cocktail party who goes on and on about himself.

Over the years, many people have inquired about hiring me to write their "amazing true life story" of surviving cancer, or overcoming domestic abuse, or recovering from drug and alcohol addiction. (One guy even wanted me to write his "inspirational" true life story of becoming a yoga instructor.) Or sometimes it's the true life story of their aunt, grandparent, etc. They always swear it's the most interesting story ever. (Many of these people even think I'll be so blown away by their great story that I'd be willing to write it for free, and we can "split the profit" when the script sells. Um, never ask a professional to spend months of his or her life working on your labor of love on speculation, by the way. It's...well, just plain rude.)

Sadly, not a single one of these "amazing true life stories" has ever proven to be unique enough or compelling enough to be worth my time. I'm sorry to break it to you, but your life, as fascinating/sad/unfair/funny as it may seem to you, is probably more mundane than you realize.

On the other hand, maybe your life really is quite astonishing. Maybe you ran off to join the circus as a six year old, ran away from that circus to become an assassin at eleven years old, ousted the government of a small island country at seventeen years old, and for the past twenty years you've been teaching blind kids how to play professional polo. Well, believe it or not, your extraordinary life is a problem, too, story-wise. Because, as Mark Twain said, "The only difference between reality and fiction is that fiction has to be credible."

Mundane or extraordinary, your "true life story" is unlikely to make a good film. See, life, real life, is full of wild coincidences, vague motivations, ambiguous results, illogical decisions. That kind of "reality" doesn't work in a movie. Drama (and when I say "drama," I mean comedy too) needs to have a direct chain of consequences: This cause (choice/action by the hero) clearly leads to this effect, which then leads the hero to make this choice, and so on, until the big conclusion. Drama needs to make sense. Character motivations need to be clear. Choices need to be understandable. Story threads need to tie up in the end. That's what a "story" is.

Now, go make something up! You're a writer, goddamn it!


Further reading (aka Somewhat Related Posts from People Smarter Than Me):

Here's what TV writer & Jeopardy champ Lisa Klink has to say about writing "reality."

And among Writer on Writing's observations about bad contest entries, he notes that "reality is not a story point."


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Who is "Hollywood?"

The internet is littered with entertainment-related blogs and entertainment-related sites, where non-Hollywood people love to post (frequently, and with many exclamation points) about how very, very much they do not care about Hollywood, not at all, not one little bit.

Why anyone would go out of his way to seek out sites to which he is so actively indifferent, I don't quite understand.

"Why should I care about Hollywood!? They’re all just a bunch of immoral, filthy rich, far-left idiots who hate America!!!” the comments read (though spelling and grammar tend toward the creative -- not too surprising considering a current cultural climate which derides intellectual achievement as "elitist" and un-American). Generally the commenter will go on to describe himself as a "real" American from the places where the real people with real values live.

For a moment I’ll pretend the question "Why should I care about Hollywood?" is not rhetorical.

First of all, Hollywood is not Tom Cruise. Hollywood is not Paris Hilton. Hollywood is not the .0001 percent of super-rich super-famous people pursued by the paparazzi, any more than "computer programmers" are Bill Gates. "Hollywood" does include a tiny handful of top actors, directors, producers, and writers; sure. But the average Hollywood professional hangs out with the A-listers about as often as the average American hangs out with Congressmen.

Hollywood, actual Hollywood, consists of thousands and thousands of middle-class (if they’re lucky!) people who work very long hours building sets, rigging lights, and doing all manner of unglamorous, grueling technical jobs for which they will never become famous. Most of these people quite frankly have neither the time nor the opportunity (nor, for that matter, the desire) to attend extravagant parties and hang out with celebrities. They don’t endorse political candidates and give interviews in glossy magazines. They don’t live in mansions in Malibu and fly private planes around the world. They get up way, way before dawn and drive to work and get bossed around by supervisors who don’t appreciate them nearly enough. They struggle with stress and fatigue and overwork because they have too much to do and not enough time to do it. They make an hourly wage. They worry about job insecurity and health care and debt. They are Democrats and Republicans; they are the highly-educated and the high school dropouts. They are Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and non-believers and every religion under the sun. They come from big cities; they come from the Heartland; they come from the Bible Belt; they come from countries all over the world.

Should you care about them because their jobs are hard? No, at least not any more than you care about your neighbor or your husband or your friend or anyone else whose job is hard. Most Americans, after all -- no matter where they live -- have jobs that are hard.

But here's why you should care about Hollywood, if you care about America:

American entertainment is beloved all over the world. Entertainment is a product that America makes better than any other country. But more importantly, it's America's biggest export. Saying you don't care about Hollywood is like saying you couldn't care less if Detroit never makes another car. If you care at all about the American economy, you really SHOULD care about Hollywood. And while many Americans may not like the “values” depicted in hit Hollywood films, consider this:

In almost all (hit) Hollywood films, the good guy wins. The regular citizen fights City Hall and succeeds. The little guy achieves his impossible dream. The villain’s greed is punished; courage and determination are rewarded. The hero risks his own life for others, and saves the day.

Foreign films often have downbeat endings, but American films reflect the unwavering American belief that even the humblest among us, with guts, hope, grit, and ingenuity, can triumph over anything.

That is an American value which transcends all religions and creeds. I believe it makes us a good people, and even a great people.

But then, what do I know...? I, too, am "Hollywood."

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Thumbs down to this screenplay contest....

Like most working screenwriters, I am opposed to "dollar options." There are countless reasons why dollar options are a terrible idea for the writer, and why you should never agree to one. Please, please don't fall into the trap of being tricked into believing that a free or el cheapo option will make you a "professional screenwriter." This is so far from the truth it's laughable. All a dollar option does is tie up the rights to your work so that it's unavailable when a serious producer comes along who actually wants to buy it.

This brings me to today's sad topic: an established, formerly respectable screenplay contest that has just been taken off my "mildly recommended" list, and placed on my "avoid" list.

Say it ain't so, IndieProducer. In the past this contest seemed all right. It's run by people who have actually made a couple of films. Their entry fee was a bit high in relation to their modest cash prizes, but it was within acceptable parameters. They had (based on my limited polling of past entrants) a good track record of responding to emails, and generally met their deadlines for announcing winners. Overall, this contest has rated a neutral-to-mildly-positive on my "recommended contests" scale.

Okay, some aspiring writers aren't impressed by cash prizes, and think "exposure" is the only good reason to enter a contest. I respectfully disagree. The folks who think cash prizes are silly are people who have well-paying day jobs and would blow a big cash prize on a new plasma TV or a trip to Hawaii. I, on the other hand, always look at cash prizes in terms of how many months of "room and board" they'll cover for a struggling writer. For instance, in one particularly good month I won $11,000 total from three different screenwriting contests -- $2,500 from a relatively small contest that I won, $2,500 from a pretty big contest in which I was the runner-up, and $6,000 from a prestigious contest that I won. That $11,000 came at a time when I was so broke I couldn't even afford to buy a ream of paper, and was considering taking a temp job to make ends meet. All of a sudden I knew I'd have many many months of stress-free writing. Was that valuable to me? Hell, yeah.

As for "exposure" -- well, very few screenplay contests are SO prestigious that Hollywood actively seeks out the names of the winners. With the exception of the Nicholl Fellowship -- which is so prestigious that winning it, or even placing in the finals, means that your phone will ring non-stop -- when you win a contest, you need to do the work of informing agents and producers about your award. In that regard, pretty much any contest win is helpful, provided that you have an intriguing logline and can write a snappy query letter. Being able to mention in your query letter that the script has won an award is "extra frosting" to tempt the producer into reading it.

But, back to IndieProducer. I noticed that this year, they had changed their prize to an "option" with the production company that runs the contest. Basically, this is a way that a production company can charge a reading fee for considering your screenplay -- by disguising it as a "contest entry fee."

Now, I don't necessarily have a problem with small production companies running contests as a way to find good scripts. Indie companies don't have the resources to pay readers to weed through thousands of unsolicited submissions. Thus, they either "hire" interns to cover scripts for free (an exploitative practice in itself), or they institute a policy of "no unsolicited submissions" and rely on databases like InkTip -- a favorite of bottom-feeding and ultra-low-budget producers -- in their search for decent, cheap material.

The difference between entering a production company's contest, versus simply paying a reading fee to be considered by said production company, is that with a contest, somebody wins. This is important. If a production company simply charges reading fees, they can keep doing that forever with no intention of ever making a film. Reading fees can be their sole source of income. They don't even have to read any scripts; they can just collect the money and throw out the screenplays. On the other hand, if there's a contest involved, the company is legally obligated to pick a winner and give them a prize. And that prize should be something tangible: cash with no strings attached, or a PAID option, or other prizes of real and measurable value. And a respectable production company will award you a prize big enough that (after also paying their readers) the company is basically breaking even on the contest. In other words, the contest is legitimately a way for them to find promising material without going broke -- it's NOT a way for them to make extra income.

Which brings me back to IndieProducer. I had to do a little research (they're not being too forthcoming about the details of their "prize"), but guess what? When asked, they will admit that their prize is an UNPAID option. Yep, that's right. By entering this contest, you get to pay $35-$40 for the chance to win an UNPAID option. (Oh, and you also get a plaque.) This is icky on so many levels I don't know where to begin. Of course, the contest organizers are quick to point out that this is an experienced and respected production company. Yay.

Look: If you've been a screenwriter for any length of time you have producers (including, yes, "established" producers) offer you dollar options all the time. And if you have any sense at all, you turn them down. One of my scripts had seven or eight different producers try to option it for free (well, a buck). I always said no, and continued to enter the script into contests, winning over $18,000 in cash prizes. (By the way, I would've been ineligible for those contests if I'd accepted an option!)

Every time I turned down their free/dollar options, the various producers chided me for passing up such a "great opportunity" to work with people with "solid connections." Don't ever believe that b.s.! A producer with no money and no access to money doesn't have the ability to get a kite off the ground, never mind a movie. And, if they DO have access to money, but don't have the decency to make a small "good faith" payment to you -- say, at least enough to cover your rent for one month -- well, that's not someone you should work with. Ever. Fortunately for me, I didn't fall for the empty flattery of any of those losers -- therefore my script was totally available when a producer with integrity came along who really DID love my script...and who proved it by paying me decent money.

How sad that the "winner" of IndieProducer won't be able to leverage his contest victory by sending his script out to interested agents and producers. Instead, he'll get to celebrate his win by watching his script collect dust for a year. If the prize were a PAID option of a few thousand dollars, at least the writer would have something to show for it -- AND the company would have more incentive to actually make the movie.

Never enter a contest with a FREE OPTION as the award. Trust me, you don't want that booby prize!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Aspiring screenwriter tip #1: It all counts

As some of you know, I've won a whole bunch of screenwriting (and other writing) contests -- enough to cover my rent and basic necessities for several years. A lot of folks claim that writing contests are simply lotteries, and if that's true, I must be one hell of a lucky person. Maybe so; I am Irish, after all.

But if that's true, I'm not the only "lucky" one. If you follow contests, you'll see the same few names crop up over and over in the winners' circles. Meanwhile, the people who swear that contests are "crapshoots" point to the fact that they themselves rarely place in contests, as proof of contests' randomness. I can't help but notice that a whole lot of these very "unlucky" writers also (coincidentally, I'm sure) make a lot of grammatical errors in their message board/blog posts, and betray a certain tone-deafness in terms of sentence flow and style.

"But I'm only writing fast, on the internet! I try much harder to write well when it actually counts!" is the defense these "unlucky" aspiring writers use to explain their jarring and unreadable posts. Well, haste can certainly account for an excusable typo or two. But if your natural inclination when writing is to spew clunky, illogical, unaesthetic sentences rife with errors, you're at a significant disadvantage in the competition to become a professional writer.

To look at it another (perhaps less threatening) way, imagine two aspiring singers:

Person A has a natural sense of pitch, and sounds good even when idly humming to herself or belting out an improptu karaoke performance. Her voice sounds pleasing to the ear. If you overhear her singing along to her iPod, you immediately think "what a lovely voice" and want to hear more. For Person A, it is her voice's natural inclination to be on-key and aesthetically pleasing...she doesn't have to fake it. In fact, she'd have to really "try" to sing badly.

Now consider Person B. Person B really, really wants to be a singer, and feels entitled to a singing career precisely because she wants it so much. Ever since she was little, she's dreamed being rich and famous, and she loves to be the center of attention, so she believes a singing career is her destiny. Person B sounds fairly good when she sings in the shower (at least in her own opinion), but when she gets the chance to sing publicly, her voice tends to break or hit the wrong key. She blames the imperfect performance conditions, and gets frustrated because if only the audience would be silent, if only there were no distractions, if only the songs were more "right" for her range, if only she had more time to warm up, if only the acoustics were the same as in her bathroom...she's certain she could sound almost as good as Person A. Even so, her voice is generally on key, except for a few wince-inducing screeches, and although her voice doesn't have a "nice" tone exactly, it's not altogether awful, either. It is not her voice's natural state to be on key and aesthetically pleasing, but if she's really, really trying and conditions are perfect and the audience isn't too discerning (in other words, if they possess no singing ability themselves), she's passable. She compares herself only to the worst singers, and finds that she compares favorably. She tries to ignore all the singers who are much better than she is, and if she can't ignore them, she rationalizes that they've all been given an unfair advantage by some kind of rigged system.

To become a professional singer, Person A is going to have to put in a tremendous amount of work (years and years), learning to control her breathing, learning to expand her range and volume, learning how to have good stage presence, and many other skills. If she does all that, she might -- might -- have a shot.

So...how much of a chance do you think Person B has?

I have never, ever read a decent script by a person who doesn't write snappy, articulate, properly-punctuated message board posts and emails. Sorry, but you can just tell who can write and who can't, even in a casual setting.

Sure, I know there are those (invariably lazy, illiterate people whose message board posts are riddled with spelling and punctuation errors) who say they can't be bothered writing properly in an email, blog, or message board forum, but who claim to bring their A game "when it counts."

But I don't believe them -- not for a second. You're either a writer all the time, or you aren't. A talented opera singer doesn't default to singing off-key in the shower. Singing on-key comes naturally if she has talent. She still has to work to achieve excellence, but competence is a given!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Starving screenwriter tip: How to find an extra $1000 -- and more importantly, some peace

How often have you come up with your best ideas while in the shower, or taking a drive by yourself, or practicing a relaxing hobby? Your subconscious is working on story ideas and plot twists all the time, but it needs a chance to communicate with you. That requires long blocks of protected peace and quiet. You never know quite when you're going to slip into this meditative, daydream state.

Now, isn't it really frustrating when you're having an elaborate dream, and you can't wait to see how it all turns out -- and then you're jarred awake by, say, the yammering of morning DJs, causing the dream to slip irretrievably out of reach?

In the same way, phones invade your mental space, shattering the dream-like state of "flow." A few times when I've forgotten to shut the ringer off on my phone, I've lost entire paragraphs, scenes, and dialogue exchanges, because some telemarketer called -- literally, a day's worth of work that could never be recovered. Non-writers don't understand why these interruptions are so devastating, because they think writing is pretty much just "typing" -- when in actuality, it's hours of contemplation punctuated by bursts of transcription. They think if you're interrupted, you can just recover your train of thought some other time. But you can't, any more than you can recover an elaborate dream once the alarm clock has intruded. So why on earth would a writer want to risk this intrusion 24/7, everywhere he goes?

The solution: ditch your cell phone.

Getting rid of your cell phone is enormously freeing. First of all, starving writers should avoid buying anything that requires an expensive long-term contract, such as a cell phone. You may be able to afford it this month, but three months from now you might dearly wish you were free of that financial obligation. Even a minimal cell phone plan costs you many hundreds of dollars per year, and some people even spend well over a thousand dollars a year on a fancy cell phone, unlimited minutes, texting, etc. I suppose this might make sense for a few occupations, such as ER doctor, or perhaps "celebutante." But why would a writer willingly sign up for indentured servitude to a device that has a devastating effect on his work? That's just plain crazy.

You'll be amazed how much more creative you'll be, how much clearer your thinking will be, if you ditch the infernal device. Whenever you're alone on the bus, or you're sitting in the park with your dog, or you're early for a meeting, you can read a book or jot down some free-associative ideas. I know it's a totally "retro" idea that anyone should actually be alone with his own thoughts for a few minutes, instead of having a vapid conversation and/or text dialogue about every inane thing that happens throughout the day -- but try it. (By the way, if you hate being alone, and are easily "bored" by contemplation, then a writing career is probably not right for you.)

Okay, so...how do people get in touch with you?

Ah. Well. There's email, of course, which is both convenient and free. And there's this old-fashioned thingy called a "land line," which can be surprisingly adequate as a telecommunication device. Chances are if you live in an apartment building you're going to need to get one anyway, because the front door intercom (err...if you're lucky enough to find a building in which this device isn't broken) usually connects to your phone line. You can get a bare-bones land line for about $10-$12 a month -- but, note that this doesn't include long distance, which can be expensive with a bare-bones plan. To make long distance calls you might want to get a pre-paid phone card (it's still cheaper than a monthly cell phone service), or, arrange for family and friends who have fancy cell phone plans to call you back during their "free nights and weekends."

I definitely recommend spending the extra few dollars a month (+ annoying set-up fee) for voice mail; it's a bargain. I have a land line, but the ringer is frequently turned off; with voice mail I can check messages when it's convenient for me and won't interrupt my writing. When I won the Nicholl and was suddenly deluged with calls from reps and producers, I made the small investment to get voice mail service, and have been satisfied with it ever since. It allows people to leave messages if I have the phone turned off, or if I'm on the internet (by the way, I have free dial-up, and you can get it too -- but I'll talk about that in an upcoming post). When people leave a voice mail they have no way of knowing they aren't reaching a cell phone, so if for some reason you want to maintain the illusion that you're one of the cell-phone-owning masses, voice mail will help you keep up the facade.

Now...maybe you're worried that you'd feel vulnerable without a cell phone, afraid that you might get stranded somewhere and be unable to call for help. This is a totally understandable concern, and perhaps a good reason to get one of those temporary, pay-as-you-go cell phones that are for sale in grocery stores. But -- don't give anyone the number; it's only for an emergency!

Money saved by ditching your cell phone: Varies; many hundreds of dollars per year.
Daydreams saved from oblivion: priceless.