What To Do In The In-Between Time

IdeaLightBulb(jeffbullassite)Draft after draft.  Rewrite after rewrite.  Sometimes it feels like all we’re doing is writing in circles.

When you need a break from your beloved, it’s hard to decide what to do in that downtime.  I know I’m usually at a loss.  I try to find a new story idea, or consider rewriting one of my other screenplays, but sometimes you just need to do different work for the same story.

Bang2Write is a great resource for writers, and if you aren’t subscribing to Lucy V Hay’s site, as a screenwriter I would recommend it.  I have found loads of truly useful information, like the following – 7 Useful Things You Can Do Between Drafts.

Using my sci-fi pilot, The Demeter as an example, I’ll go through the steps and show you what I’m thinking about in my own downtime.

  1. Compare/Contrast to “Like” stories – Like the Doctor of Doctor Who, I want my human protagonist to not hold any immediate prejudice because of what an alien might look like (although easier said than done. We humans scare easily.).  The video game Mass Effect inspired the idea behind the human/alien interactions and romance options.  It’s unlike shows such as Firefly because not all the characters are human and not all stories are about human problems.  Star Wars and Star Trek are obvious go-tos, but other than the military connection, which won’t be overly used until season 2, I want to stay away from any ideas influenced by either.
  2. Think it Over – The pilot needs to foreshadow more of the ideas I have for the first season.  In addition to a different opening scene, I need to show the “shady” nature of the ship’s captain so the viewer is unsure for some time whether or not he can be trusted.  Early feedback suggested I integrate an image of where the show “might” go aka Battlestar Galactica always showed Earth as the final destination.  Where do I want the show to go?
  3. Work on Craft – Feedback also recommended I adjust the pacing.  Determine the best course to improve this.
  4. Make Contacts – Besides social media…think outside the box on making contact with those in the industry – Meetups, retreats (within reason), writer’s groups?
  5. Feedback – Build relationships of give and take.  Giving feedback will help my writing as well.  Get back on Zoetrope.
  6. Submission Strategy – I’m already using a calendar to keep track of contest deadlines, but could be better arranged for the whole year.  FilmFreeway is a good resource to use more fully.  Get more than one script ready for submission.
  7. Nothing.  Relax…for a minute. 😉

I hope you find this information as useful as I did.  Happy Writing!

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Screenwriting Tips for Submission Season

HelpfulTipsLast week I shared a list of the 10 prominent screenwriting contests and their approaching deadlines to give you a heads up of what to expect the next few months.  Hopefully, you’re not like me, in the middle of a major rewrite instead of just a polish.

Ah, the sweet agony of a deadline.

This week I thought I would share a few tips on how to be best prepared to submit.  I’m not sure where I originally found this checklist – my apologies to whoever created it.  It’s a list of 10 things to look over/be aware of before you hit send.

  1. Opening image
  2. Opening line
  3. First scene’s setting
  4. Genre/Tone
  5. Character roles
  6. Character motivations
  7. Structure
  8. Scene focus
  9. Spelling/Grammar
  10. Concept/Logline

*If you’re interested, I can expand on each of these in more detail.  Just let me know in the comments below.

One of my favorite pieces of advice came from Good in a Room‘s Stephanie Palmer who suggests –

Choose a contest and a deadline. Then, submit at least one script to one of the top screenwriting contests I recommend.

If the script gets recognized in any way (i.e., it doesn’t win but it makes the second round, or top 10%, etc), revise it and submit to three different contests.

If the script doesn’t get recognized, then keep it in your library of projects, pick something new from your development slate, and write something else.

Instead of submitting multiple projects to several contests (which can get expensive), you only make multiple submissions when you have objective evidence that your work is good enough to have a chance to win, and you spend more of your valuable time writing new material.

That’s plenty of work, I know.

And it doesn’t take into account the other aspects of how to be a professional writer that have nothing to do with writing…

But over time, if you write and submit at least one script every year to one of the best contests, you will get better and your material will get better. If you submit multiple scripts only when they have received positive feedback, your chances of being successful go up.

I hope you find this helpful, and I wish you all the best this submission season!

It’s Submission Season!

submitHey fellow screenwriters!  Are you ready for another year of petrifying “submit” clicks?  Yep, it’s that most wonderful time of the year, again.

If you haven’t done the search for what deadlines are approaching, let me share what I’ve learned.  Here are 10 of the more prominent competitions:

The one I think all screenwriters dream of winning is the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship, which is for features only.  The early deadline is March 7 ($45).  I’d also recommend following them on Facebook as they share reader comments throughout the competition.  It’s always fun to wonder if that lovely review is about your work.

The Austin Film Festival is also garnering a reputation for its screenwriting competition in both feature (with the added perk of being genre specific) and teleplay (including specs) categories.  The early deadline is March 31 ($45).  You can follow them on Twitter.

PAGE International is already open and the regular deadline is fast approaching – February 17 ($49).  This is for features only, but they’ve also branched out into being genre specific as well.  They’re on both Facebook and Twitter if you’re interested in keeping up with the latest.

I entered my pilot in Scriptapalooza‘s TV competition, which reopens April 15, but the feature category, again, has been accepting since the beginning of the year.  The regular deadline is March 10 ($55).  You can follow them on both Facebook and Twitter, but they also have a mailing list that will keep you current.

I may have entered my pilot into this one, it’s all sort of a blur at the moment, so I have to double check.  How terrible is that?!  Script Pipeline offers a number of competitions to choose from, such as their First Look and Great Idea (both TV and feature) contests, in addition to the TV and feature competitions – which share the same date and fee for their early entry, March 1 ($50).  They also have a mailing list and are on all social media.

Finish Line is another competition that offers both feature and TV categories, and has received positive endorsement from the film community.  Their early deadline is, again, fast approaching – February 17 ($40), but if you’re like me, procrastinating on that final polish/rewrite, a more “reasonable” regular deadline is April 28 ($45).  You can follow them on Twitter.

Screencraft not only offers valuable information via their blog, they have a wonderful setup in their competition department – it’s genre specific!  The deadlines are scattered throughout the year, so I would highly recommend joining the mailing list to stay up to date.  Currently they are accepting submissions for Sci-fi and Fantasy features.  Early deadline is February 16 ($39).  They’re on all social media as well.

Final Draft just announced that they’ll be ready to accept submissions for 2017’s Big Break starting February 22.  They have both feature and TV categories, but the entry fee section has not been updated on their site yet (early fee last year was $40).  And of course, they’re on all social media too.

BlueCat is another site I recommend following for their useful advice via their blog, in addition to their newsletter and social media accounts.  Their competition is open for features, shorts, TV, and plays.  The early deadline is March 1 and fees vary depending on the entry. Features – $45  Shorts – $35  Pilots – $40  Plays – $30

Finally, there is the Sundance Institute‘s Screenwriters Lab which is not open yet for submissions for 2018, but if you have a script that is Sundance Film Festival material, get it ready!  Last year the application period was from March 15 – May 3.  I would love to take part in the Lab, but sadly, I don’t think any of my material is small budget. 😉

So get those screenplays “submission season ready” and let’s go after our dreams!  Happy Writing!

Opportunities for Writers

MegaphoneWhen I find a writing opportunity, I like to share.

If you’re not following Aerogramme Writers’ Studio yet, you definitely should!  Like right now.  Go.  I’ll wait.  😉

Okay, now that you’re back, let’s get to business.

Aerogramme sends regular monthly emails with opportunities, and then a number of other emails throughout the month when they discover something new.  Now you don’t have to waste your time not writing because you’re looking for avenues to showcase your work, they’ll come to you.

Here are two, for example:

  1. Kathy Fish Fellowship for Flash Fiction Writers via SmokeLong Quarterly. Applications will be accepted until September 15th which is only a week away, but there’s no entry fee (although a $5 donation is suggested) and they accept unsolicited material all year round.
  2. Buzzfeed’s 2nd Annual Emerging Writers Fellowship is open until October 1st.  The winners will spend four months being mentored in either NY or LA and win $12,000 to financially support themselves while they learn.  There is a great deal of work required to enter this one (a resume, a personal statement, 5 writing examples, and 3 letters of reference), so if you’re interested, get crackin’!

Wishing you the very best in all your endeavors!  Good Luck!

The Rise in Shock Value

CapHydra

The internet, and myself included, were all in a tizzy this week with the announcement that in a new comic series, Steve Rogers #1, Captain America is actually an undercover Hydra agent.

Nope.

No.

Not having it.

Fans were quite rightly upset and for good reason.  Captain America has stood as a moral icon, defending the defenseless against tyranny and oppression, and choosing the right path, regardless of personal cost, for 75 years.  He’s the good guy, with no hints at all to his character to the contrary.  Many fans believe this is just a publicity stunt, shock for shock value alone, and I agree.

With his rise in popularity due to two wonderful films in the MCU, I can imagine that there was a meeting in which execs and writers came up with a few “what if” scenarios, but as a fellow writer, I can attest to the fact that not all ideas are good ones.  I can’t fault a writer for wanting to take a risk, especially with a character of Cap’s reputation, but taking a character with such a strong moral code and turning that on its head without any warning is just feeding into the mentality that the only way to be relevant is to be shocking.

We, as a people, continually exposed to all manner of craziness via the internet and the rise in dramatic, stunning television, I think, are the reasons behind such bold moves.  In order to be noticed, we’ve resorted to becoming the one-uppers.  Shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story, among others, have risen the bar in the way of surprising their audience, and I thank them for it, but at the same time wonder if it’s not hurting us as well, overall.

We now expect so much more from all our media-going experiences, and this is forcing writers to do the unexpected often without reason.  A scene like the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones had a great deal of build up.  It wasn’t an out of left field surprise, although yes, it was upsetting.  The stage was set, long before we arrived, with bread crumbs left along the way that led us to such an inevitable conclusion.

GoT

This is something as writers we need to be aware of.  We can’t throw in a shocking twist just because – there has to be a reason, motivation, there has to have been set up.  Audiences want to be satisfied, they also want to feel clever, and this is done by offering them morsels and insights they can piece together before the big surprise.

This offers us, as writers, a great challenge to think about the nuances needed to tell our story more effectively.  If we look at the big picture, how can we impress upon our audience what is to come with a little foreshadowing?  Is there a metaphor that could highlight the impending dilemma?  Is there a phrase said by a character early on that offers such insight?  Think of social media and how people dig into their favorite scenes, stories, characters, etc. to find more depth and hidden meaning (I have discovered a number of memes and the like showcasing foreshadowing I missed myself) and think of how happy it will make our audience if we can offer that to them.

I found this writing tip via Helping Writers Become Authors that offers the good and bad reasons to kill a character, but I think it can be utilized in regards to any plot device.

KillingCharacter

Let us not short change our audience.  Let us give them the surprises they deserve; those that mean more because we cared enough to think our story through, and not just another tactic or ploy meant to incite emotion or a reaction.  Let us also not short change our work or our characters.  Be true to them.  They deserve no less…and so does Cap.

Happy Writing!

The Elusive “Next Idea”

YKYAWWStopEverythingClearing out my email again this week, I came across a few articles I wanted to share, but none of them really corresponded to the other, so I decided to pick one and run with it.

Where do we come up with our ideas?

I’ve written a ramble or two in regards to keeping a notepad with you at all times, or utilizing the note app on your phone with the built-in night light, because we can only keep reiterating that wonderful nugget we’ve discovered for so long before weYKYAWWTexting eventually lose it.  It’s our burden – brilliance at the wrong time.

InkTip shared How to Scientifically Spark Your Creative Genius, and it’s a quick read that will give you a little insight into why we have our best ideas right before we fall asleep, or when we’re doing anything else besides writing.

Not all our snippets are gold on their own, but our minds are complex things that work out plots and intricacies long before we ever get pen to paper, or finger to keyboard.  We don’t know what little blurb of conversation we overheard and wrote down could be the beginnings of something wonderful, and if we fail to write it down, we’ll never find out.

A line of dialogue in a TV series sent my mind whirling about a screenplay that I’ll get to eventually.  It’s dark and kind of twisted, not my usual fare, but it’s good to have ideas outside our genre too.

I’ve been writing fan fiction at work as a way to pass the time, but sometimes during those few mundane hours I’ve come up with ways to fix plot holes or created new characters.  This is why I always have a notepad for writing in my server book.  That’s the strange thing about being a writer, when people ask where we come up with our ideas.  Sometimes it’s from being observant, sometimes, who knows?

Maybe it is just from giving our minds a break from the responsibility that accompanies the idea that as writers, we must always be on.

DaydreamingQuote

I’ve heard of writers doing these things called “idea sessions”, and I still can’t get on board with it.  Sitting and writing dozens of ideas in a given time to see if one sticks?  I’m not sure if that’s the way to finding a story you can be passionate about…but since I haven’t tried it, maybe I’m not one to speak.

We’re the first readers of our stories, and I believe we have to love what we’re writing.  If you’re just looking to write a formulaic story, I have to wonder why?

I’ve said this before: everyone has a story, but that doesn’t make everyone a writer.  And I stand by that.  I think as writers, we see everything as potential material, and that’s what separates us.

So when you hear something interesting, or see an image clearly in your mind, don’t lose it, because that could be the start of your next big idea!

Best wishes!

A Screenwriter’s Technical Execution Checklist

HelpfulTipsThe final checklist in this series from Wordplayer.com  looks at the technical aspect of screenwriting aka format.  For those new to the craft or just unfamiliar, screenplays have a particular format that doesn’t resemble other writing.

Here’s a flirty(?) example from my script, Fate(s).  It’s receiving a polish next month, and I’ve just found two things I want to change…note to self…

FormatExample

As you can see, there’s a lot of white page.  After reading or writing a few, you’ll quickly notice when something is off in someone else’s.  *Side note, even full length features vary from TV scripts.

Screenwriters, and the Hollywood set, use terminology that is also specific to screenwriting, so before you decide to embark on creating your first screenplay, be sure to study up to have a better understanding of what goes into this style of writing.  I suppose that is a good lead-in for a post on terminology.

Social media with its limited characters, and texting in a new form of shorthand, have done nothing to help the writer.  Plus, the illiterate form most texts and updates take now just drive me crazy.  How hard is it to put in a comma or a period or just spell out a simple word?!  Seriously.  It makes me feel old.  I don’t like it.  That being said, as writers hoping to be professionals, we have to separate ourselves from all that and know the rules in order to break them.

  1. Is it properly formatted?
  2. Proper spelling and punctuation?  Sentence fragments okay.
  3. Is there a discernible three-act structure?
  4. Are all scenes needed?
  5. Screenplay descriptions should direct the reader’s mind’s eye, not the director’s camera.
  6. Begin the screenplay as far into the story as possible.
  7. Begin a scene as late as possible, end it as early as possible.  A screenplay is like a piece of string that you can cut up and tie together — the trick is to tell the entire story using as little string as possible.
  8. In other words: Use cuts.
  9. Visual, Aural, Verbal — in that order.  The expression of someone who has just been shot is best; the sound of the bullet slamming into him is second best; the person saying, “I’ve been shot” is only third best.
  10. What is the hook, the inciting incident?  You’ve got 10 pages to grab an audience. *There is talk that you now have to grab attention within 3 pgs.
  11. Allude to the essential points two or even three times.  Or hit the key point very hard.  Don’t be obtuse.
  12. Repetition of locale.  It helps to establish the atmosphere of the film, and allows audience to “get comfortable”.
  13. Repetition and echoes can be used to tag secondary characters.  Dangerous technique to use with leads.
  14. Not all scenes have to run five pages of dialogue and/or action.  In a good screenplay, there are lots of two-inch scenes.  Sequences build pace.
  15. Small details add reality.  Has the subject matter been thoroughly researched?
  16. Every single line must either advance the plot, get a laugh, reveal a character trait, or do a combination of two — or in the best case, all three — at once.
  17. No false plot points; no backtracking.  It’s dangerous to mislead an audience; they will feel cheated if important actions are taken based on information that has not been provided, or turns out to be false.
  18. Silent solution; tell your story with pictures. *This is the whole idea of screenplays and the phrase, “Show don’t tell”.
  19. No more than 125 pages, no less than 110…or the first impression will be of a script that “needs to be cut” or “needs to be fleshed out”.  *Romantic comedies are generally 90 mins which equals 90 pgs.  The bigger concern is the bigger script, especially, from what I’ve read, for new writers.  It shows a lack of editing capability.  Just FYI.
  20. Don’t number the scenes of a selling script.  MOREs and CONTINUEDs are optional.

While screenplay structure is fairly precise, there are a number of tricks to learn that help draw the readers eye down the page and, subsequently, turning pages.  This comes with knowledge and practice.  I’m experimenting with some new things in my pilot, so I guess we’ll see how that works out.

Also, I need to research (and then update) no# 13.  I’ve never heard the term “echo” in regards to screenwriting.  If you know, please share!

I hope you found this series useful!  I’ll try to get back on track with sharing useful/helpful tips…I’ve been bad recently.

Happy Writing!

A Screenwriter’s Character Checklist

CharacterStreetSignOn Tuesday I posted a concept checklist for screenwriters from the writing/producing team at Scheherazade Productions.  Their website is Worplayer.com.  As promised, here is Part II on Character.

Screenwriting varies greatly from novel writing, but many of the items lend themselves to both sides of the spectrum and are good to keep in mind when developing your characters and story.

The checklist is broken into three parts (the third section deals with technical execution), and is intended to help Hollywood readers find great scripts.  For writers, it’s a resource to utilize to get past the gatekeepers by creating unforgettable characters and worlds.

  1. Are the parts castable?  Does the film have roles stars will want to play?
  2. Action and humor should emanate from the characters, and not just thrown in for the sake of a laugh.  Comedy which violates the integrity of the characters or oversteps the reality-world of the film may get a laugh, but it will ultimately unravel the picture.
  3. Audiences want to see characters who care deeply about something — especially other characters.
  4. Is there one scene where the emotional conflict of the main character comes to a crisis point?
  5. A character’s entrance should be indicative of the characters’s traits.  The first impression of a character is important.
  6. Lead characters must be sympathetic — people we care about and want to root for.
  7. What are the characters wants and needs?  What is the lead character’s dramatic need?  Needs should be strong, definite, and clearly communicated to the audience.
  8. What does the audience want for the characters?  It’s all right to be either for or against a particular character — the only unacceptable emotion is indifference.
  9. Concerning characters and action: a person is what s/he does, not necessarily what s/he says.
  10. On character faults: characters should be “this but also that” complex.  Characters with doubts and faults are more believable, and more interesting.  Heroes who have done wrong and villains with noble motives are better than characters who are straight black and white.
  11. Characters can be understood in terms of “what is their greatest fear?”
  12. Character traits should be independent of the character’s role.  i.e. A banker who fiddles with his gold watch is memorable, but cliche; a banker who breeds dogs is a somehow more acceptable detail.
  13. Character conflicts should be both internal and external.  Characters should struggle with themselves, and with others.
  14. Character POVs need to be distinctive within an individual screenplay.  Characters should not all think the same.  Each character needs to have a definite point of view in order to act, and not just react.
  15. Distinguish characters by their speech patterns: word choice, sentence patterns; revealed background, level of intelligence.
  16. “Character superior” sequences (where the character acts on information the audience does not have) usually don’t work for very long — the audience gets lost.  On the other hand, when the audience is in a “superior” position — the audience knows something that the characters do not — it almost always works.  (NOTE: This does not mean the audience should be able to predict the plot!)
  17. Run each character through as many emotions as possible — love, hate, laugh, cry, revenge.
  18. Characters must change.  What is the character’s arc?
  19. The reality of the screenplay world is defined by what the reader knows of it, and the reader gains that knowledge from the characters.  Unrealistic character actions imply an unrealistic world; fully-designed characters convey the sense of a realistic world.
  20. Is the lead involved with the story throughout?  Do they control the outcome of the story?

I hope you find this checklist useful!  It definitely gives us a number of things to consider.

Happy Writing!

A Screenwriter’s Concept Checklist

I’ve been slowly going from room to room, computer folder to folder, spring cleaning.  I hate clutter.

HelpfulTipsI came across an old save from a website called Wordplayer.com created by the screenwriter/producer team of Scheherazade Productions, Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio.  They wrote Aladdin and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, among many others.  Considering the success of those films alone, it’s fair to say their advice is worth listening to.

The checklist was created to help Hollywood readers find scripts worthy of moving beyond the elusive gates.  There are three sections total, and I will share the other two as well.  The following are the 20 items readers should keep in mind in regards to “concept” and “plot”, and for writers it’s a resource to understand what may make or break the success of your script getting seen by those with the power to jump start your career.

  1. Imagine the trailer.  Is the concept marketable?
  2. Is the premise naturally intriguing — or just average, demanding perfect execution?
  3. Who is the target audience?
  4. Does your story deal with the most important events in the lives of your characters?
  5. If you’re writing about a fantasy-come-true, turn it quickly into a nightmare-that-won’t-end.
  6. Does the screenplay create questions: Will he find out the truth? Did she do it? Will they fall in love?  Has a strong “need to know” hook been built into the story?
  7. Is the concept original?
  8. Is there a goal?  Is there pacing?  Does it build?
  9. Begin with a punch, end with a flurry.
  10. Is it funny, scary, or thrilling?  All three?
  11. What does the story have that the audience can’t get from real life?
  12. What’s at stake?  Does the concept create the potential for the characters lives to be changed?
  13. What are the obstacles?  Is there sufficient challenge for our heroes?
  14. What is the screenplay trying to say, and is it worth trying to say it?
  15. Does the story transport the audience?
  16. Is the screenplay predicable?  There should be surprises and reversals within the major plot, and also within individual scenes.
  17. Once the parameters of the film’s reality are established, they must not be violated.  Limitations call for interesting solutions.
  18. Is there a decisive, inevitable, set-up ending that is nonetheless unexpected?
  19. Is it believable?
  20. Is there a strong emotion — heart — at the center of the story?  Avoid mean-spirited storylines.

It’s always said that you need to know the rules to break them, so these are just a few, or 20, things to keep in mind when you’re developing and writing your story.  This checklist was created with the screenwriter in mind, but all writers should have an understanding of who their audience is, stakes, obstacles, etc.

Wishing you all the best!  Happy Writing!

Take-aways from On Writing

OnWritingBookCoverWhile reading On Writing by Stephen King at the beginning of the year, I made notes, wherever was convenient at that particular moment – things I wanted to remember.  I like getting a resource messy – highlighting passages, underlying things, and making notes in the margins because the book is a tool, and although I felt that way about On Writing, I couldn’t force myself to mark up it’s pages.

In some way, I suppose, the book didn’t feel like a resource.  You know the kind.  You ear mark pages, and put in little sticky notes out the side to refer to at any given time.  His book was an easy read, a lesson, but not one I thought I would go back to in the same way.  I don’t know if that makes any sense…?

These are a few of the topics that stood out:

1.  Our influences as a child cause us to be “built” a certain way.  I can attest to that.  I was designed with a love for being swept off my feet and happily-ever-afters.  Of course, that’s not how my life has been, but those are the types of stories I want to write, regardless of how un-feminist it may be considered.  There’s enough darkness in the world, and movies are for escape.  Besides, fads come and go, and the desire for a feel good movie will always be in fashion.

2.  King noted that we write with one person in mind – the one we want to WOW.  For him it’s wife, for me it’s The Sis.  I never even thought about that until I saw the words on the page.  I do remember how proud I was that one of my screenplays made her cry, just a little.  She’s a tough nut to crack, and if I could get her teary-eyed, then I knew it worked.  I realized with his words, that it was her I wanted to impress, not the masses.  Although, yes, I want them to come running too.

3.  When you’ve finished writing your story, ask yourself, “Why did I bother?”  What was so important about this story that you had to tell it?  This is a great note to post on your computer or wherever you write.  Sometimes we get lost along the way, and this may help us remember the spark of the idea that instigated the story in the first place.  I wrote about this once in regards to my last full length feature I was working on.  I had sort of lost focus, hence the mid-stopping point.  Now I know how to get back into it.

As I’m trying to be better about sharing what I learn (and I am so behind in that), I thought you might find these ideas interesting while shedding a light on your own writing.

Do they strike you the same way they did me?

Happy Writing!