Don't Keep Knocking On The Door When You Know In Your Heart Nobody's Coming

     A big mistake many writers make is waiting for someone to help them. I don't mean with what you're writing at the moment,  but with what I like to call the "maintenance" of your career. Once your project is ready (meaning you've done several drafts, gotten positive feedback and you're confident it's as good as it can be), it's like a child being sent out into the world.
     Unfortunately, the world doesn't care and it won't be a welcoming place for your baby to enter into.
     That's where you come in. Unless you have contacts in high places or a referral to someone who can help you, you and only you are responsible for finding a contact in a high place and getting your own referrals.
     Too many new (and not so new) writers are helpless. 
     They act like foreigners in a country who don't speak the language.
     They are timid about asking for help. 
     They are lazy. They feel that the hard work was in getting their project in shape. I won't say that that's the easy part, but finding an agent, manager, editor producer who will even read your script is almost as difficult.
     Whatever discipline and work habits you used to write your latest opus, you must do the same in your pursuit of representation or an interested producer. 
     Allocate an hour day (more if you can spare it) to surfing the Internet for writing sites and contests with the hope of finding a name who will be receptive to reading your script or at least reading a synopsis.
    Get to know people, especially other writers or people working in the business. Join writers support groups. Go to symposiums on writing or breaking into the business. Everywhere you go talk to people. Schmooze. You never know where you'll find someone who knows someone who knows someone else.
     And keep writing query letters and query emails. Find ways to nail down the exact email address of someone important. Or even of someone not important, but who may know someone who is.
     The thing you should do least of all is to wait for someone to knock on your door, out of the blue. Or wait for someone who said they would help you, but didn't. If you encounter someone who seems positive and receptive, be thankful, but also be mistrustful. They may be lying or just yessing you to death so you'll stop bugging them.
     Be relentless, be polite, be cautious and be smart enough to know who has your best interests at heart and who doesn't.
     And hope for some luck!

Are You An Overwriter or Underwriter?

     Screenplays, as well as all forms of writing, are either overwritten or underwritten. And I don't mean strictly by length.  An overwriter will write a screenplay that's just too long. I encourage people to shoot for 110 pages, but many new (and experienced) screenwriters go way over, as well as way under. 
     This kind of overwriting and underwriting can be fixed by either editing and cutting or adding and embellishing scenes, sub-plots and the main storyline.
     The other problem area is what I'm dealing with today.
     Scenes can also be overwritten and underwritten. Overwritten means you've put in too much information or information the reader already knows or you've written a monologue that stops the forward movement of the plot dead in it's tracks. Simple, the scene is bloated and needs to be trimmed or maybe even eliminated.
     Underwritten scenes are an even bigger problem. When you have to edit a scene that's too long, it's a bit easier than having to embellish a scene that's too short. Now, in screenwriting, scenes should be short. If you can give all relevant information in a one page (or less) scene good for you. Move on to the next scene. But often, it's not that simple. Some scenes require crucial info to move the story or reveal character, so it's difficult to make it lean and mean.
     Ultimately, you will look at your first draft and realize that some scenes work very well, others are underwritten and some are overwritten.
     An underwritten scene means that you've given some information that presumably will lead to the next scene, but you just do a cursory job of it. You've written an exchange between two characters consisting of 10 lines. It probably needs 20 or 30 to clearly get the information you need to get across.
     Overwritten scenes are frustrating to read because they just have too damn much information, but at least the key info is there. Underwritten scenes are more frustrating because you merely drop some information and move to the next scene, but you leave the reader hanging and frustrated because we're not sure what you're trying to get across.
     So if you've written a scene that looks too short on the page, it probably is. Take another look at it and make sure it contains what you want it to contain. And if it doesn't, take another crack at it.

Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes

     Most screenwriters (and writers in general) are in one kind of rut or another. It just ain't happening. You have a mediocre idea or not even an idea--maybe just a notion of a story. Or the premise you fell in love with doesn't love you back. It sounded like such a good idea at the time. Now you hate it and you wonder why you ever thought it was any good.
    Back to the rut. You're not writing. The only thing you're doing is feeling sorry for yourself. Days go by. Maybe weeks. And then a few months have gone by and you're self-esteem is dwindling as your self-loathing is increasing. 
     That's when it really gets bad because you're starting to become immobilized with fear that you'll never find another good idea or that even if you do, you won't be able to finish a draft or if you do, you won't be able to rewrite it or rethink it.  That kind of thinking pushes you down even further into the miasma of a blocked writer.
    Oh, by the way, that's what you've become. You are not a screenwriter anymore. You are now a screenwriter who can't break through his block and that's dangerous territory because with all that free time you have because you aren't writing, you can spend it "thinking" about how you're not writing and that brings you down even more.
    Is there a way out of this horrible place?
    Only if you change the rut you've been in. How do you do that? Depends on your psyche. Maybe take a short vacation. Or a long one. Get away from your environment and the daily bullshit.  Join a health club. Exercise can be a very freeing experience once you find a routine.
     I won't kid you. There are might be 50 things you can try to get out of your rut and none of them may work. But you have to try. 
     You have to change whatever pattern you've fallen into.
     Because nothing changes if nothing changes, you have to take that first step.
     If you don't, it'll only get worse.

Every Screenplay Starts With A Raw Idea

     Nobody knows where it comes from...that elusive idea that sometimes materializes in our brains. It's not even in our comfort zone. It's just the nucleus of an idea or even a raw notion of a concept. But it's something and it hooks us. Maybe in the form of a sentence or maybe a theme or maybe some primal event that suddenly gets your mind cooking.
     That cooking feeling is what lights the fire under our seats.  We can't get it out of our minds. It starts to build momentum. Suddenly a character, your hero, pops into your head. What he or she wants is very clear. What he or she has to do to attain it comes next.
     Then the complications and obstacles.
     Then the protagonist.
     Then you mysteriously know the event that will come at the end of Act One. And the middle of Act Two hiccup arrives. And all of a sudden a subplot comes to mind.
     Then you realize what the end of Act Two moment will be. Something unexpected and exciting that will propel you into Act 3.
     And maybe you even know how it's going to end.
     If you're really lucky you pound out an outline that feels right. Then you start the script. It's not as if the screenplay will write itself, but you're churning out pages faster than ever before and they feel right and you've got your muse riding with you and you're writing in one of those outbursts that rarely come so you know you'd better stick with it because "make hay while the sun shines" keeps reverberating throughout your head.
     And you complete the first draft faster than anything you've ever written and you get some feedback from your key readers and they like it and they give you some good notes that feel right and you dive into the rewrite and...
     It all started with that raw idea that you weren't even looking for.
     Sometimes those are the best inspirations, much better than those other ideas you've been thinking about or making notes for or doing false starts on. Not that they won't materialize into screenplays.
     But never underestimate the wild idea that pops into your head.
     Like a new friend or a new lover, those are the best kind.

The Academy Awards 2012

     Historically, whenever I watch the Academy Awards I feel inspired as a screenwriter. Each year a few screenwriters I haven't heard of are nominated for Best Screenplay or Best Adapted Screenplay. This year was the same, but I was bummed out because of one nomination: the adaptation of Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy. It was probably the worst movie I saw last year. The screenplay is a study in nonsense, hackwork and most of all, bad storytelling.
     I went to see the film because I like Gary Oldman and I trusted the reviews (which I rarely do). I never read a review until after I see a movie. But the buzz in the quotes in the newspaper ads made it seem like a great film.
   It isn't.
   Whoever wrote this turd and study in boredom (I felt sorry for the actors) is one thing, but how could it be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay. I've met one person who liked this movie. He saw it twice. I kid him about being off his meds that day. I don't know. He's a screenwriter himself and smart. Why did he like it? Who knows?
    I suggest that you see this movie as an assignment. Tell me if you understand it. Tell me what the structure is.  Tell me what the hell it's supposed to be about.
    I love Woody Allen and I loved Midnight In Paris, but I'm not sure it deserved Best Screenplay. Margin Call or Bridesmaids were much better scripts.
    In fact, look at the structure of both of these movies. Bridesmaids went on a little too long, but it had a true beginning, middle and end. So did Margin Call.
    Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy had nothing.
    See for yourself.