Trimming the Fat

May 6, 2013

Last week I finished up a script I’ve been working on — a screen adaptation of Laura Gallier’s paranormal thriller, The Delusion. As an editor, this is my favorite part of screenwriting: that last read through, when I get to go through the entire thing and just trim the fat; find those places where just by cutting out a couple of words, that chunk of description goes from three lines down to two:

Cutting lines

or that chunk of dialogue goes from five lines down to four:

Cutting lines 2

For this script, the cascading effect of those kinds of changes ultimately reduced the page count from 123 to 115 — and more importantly, made for a stronger, tighter read.

I think this step is a must for any script before you do anything with it. I try to avoid prescriptive rules when it comes to screenwriting (or any kind of writing), but I always notice if there are a lot of dangling words (like “him” or “running” in the first example above), and I feel like it’s a sign of an amateur writer. I wouldn’t consciously pass on a script because of that alone, but it’s one of those things that can make a script drag, and people will pass on your script if it drags.


Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live in L.A.

January 21, 2013

The attitude around whether or not one has to live in Los Angeles in order to make it in the film industry has changed drastically over the past few years. A decade ago, anyone you asked would say that without a doubt you must live there, at least for some period of time. Then social media happened. All over the place, scripts were getting made not because of who you know, but because of how many people on the Internet know you. Digital technology improved, and the barriers to entry dropped dramatically. More films were getting made at lower costs, resulting in a lot more rough but a lot more diamonds, too. The “top tier” film festivals lost their stranglehold on the indie market, with more and more deals coming out of second and third tier festivals.

In short, the world changed and a new reality emerged, one that’s given an unprecedented level of access to Hollywood for people all over the globe.

Everyone knows this now, and yet people still like to tout the benefits of living in L.A. No doubt, they are plentiful: being surrounded by the industry, the buzz, being able to take that meeting today instead of next week, chance run-ins with industry players, and so on.

Well, I’m here to share with you the reasons why I’m glad I don’t live in Los Angeles–not because I hate the city (I actually love it there), but because it’s been the best thing for my career.

In 2006 I left my day job to start working as a freelance writer. I’ve been doing that full time ever since. The experience has at times been humbling, terrifying, agonizing, and exhilarating. I’ve had moments of joy that are unparalleled in any other profession. I’ve contemplated suicide. I’ve failed more times than I can count, been rejected more times than anyone should have to bear, and succeeded more times than I sometimes feel I deserve. I’ve got evangelists who are begging me to work for them, and I’ve had people tell me I’ll never make it in this industry (sometimes the same people).

But at the end of it all, I’ve learned some invaluable skills. I know how to market myself. I know how to network. I’ve kept staying the course, and have been rewarded for it.

Most importantly, I’ve been making my living as a writer for most of my working career. People are impressed when I tell them I write and edit books for a living, and have been doing that for seven years now. It gives me credibility. It’s given me tremendous experience. Most people don’t think about the similarities between writing a technical manual and writing a screenplay, but they’re there. And of course, the similarities between editing a fiction book and writing a screenplay are considerable.

I don’t know that I would have had this opportunity in Los Angeles. Most of the people you talk to there fall into one or both of the following categories: (1) they’ve been working in the industry full time since they graduated from USC, and (2) whatever job they have leaves them no time to write. You hear all the time stories of people who are talking about it but have subconsciously given up. I’ve been able to keep writing, and make my living. I’ve been patient. And I’m being rewarded for it.

I also think there’s a lot to be said for being an outsider. Most of the people I meet when I come to California are folks I know either directly or indirectly through Austin Film Festival, and they’re delighted to see me and find out how things are going. They love that I offer a perspective from outside the insular bubble of Southern California. And they’re happy to arrange that meeting for while I’m in town. I can call somebody up and ask if they want to go out to lunch just ’cause, but that’s a much more unusual invitation if we both live in the same city than if I’m flying 1,500 miles to be there. And I get to put all my meetings together into one whirlwind adventure of a week.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t move to Los Angeles (though some people I know would). Nor am I saying that I never will–n fact, I fully expect that at some point that’s going to be the natural and obvious thing to do. But I will say that I’m glad, when my wife and I contemplated it a year and a half ago, that we made the choice we did.

Owen Egerton on Writing, SCOTUS on Selling Used Books, Valuing Your Script, Odd Punctuation – Random Things for this Week

December 24, 2012

A few random things for this week:

  • Advice for writers. Owen Egerton, Austin’s favorite author for a billion years running and someone I interviewed two years ago, recently published a list of 30 pieces of advice for writers.  My favorites are 12, 14, and 21.
  • Could selling used books become illegal? Though the title is sensationalist, this is a well-crafted article about a student from Thailand who bought textbooks overseas (where they’re cheaper) and then sold them in the U.S. at below-market rates for profit. Wiley sued, claiming a copyright violation of sorts, and has thus far has won the suit to the tune of $600,000. The case is now before the Supreme Court, and whichever way they rule, the implications their decision could have on the publishing industry could be pretty staggering.
  • How much is your film script worth? Script mag put together an article on valuing your work as a writer breaking into the industry. Most of the beginning is pretty basic and self-explanatory, but once you get to the bottom it has some really interesting points about coming in as an “investor” or a co-producer.
  • Unusual Punctuation Marks. I think the interrobang, the percontation point, the exclamation comma, and the question comma should become standard usage. What do you think?

The #1 Mistake When Meeting a Producer for a Potential Writing Assignment

August 20, 2012

Okay, the title of this post may be somewhat of an exaggeration. But given the veritable cornucopia of information out there on how not to act like a complete a-hole when you meet a producer, I’ll give you enough credit to assume that you’re at a slightly higher level of competence, that you’re actually able to maintain reasonable relationships in the film industry, even if you haven’t sold anything just yet.

Thus beginneth my tale:

Last October I met with a producer/director who was looking for a writer on his newest project. I’d actually met him for the first time a year earlier, and he had mentioned the kind of projects he was interested in pursuing. I didn’t really have anything to show him at the time, but we connected on Facebook, and I’d sent him a writing sample many months later, and although he remembered none of that by the October in question, I was very polite and understanding about it, remembered the kind of projects he was interested in, and asked him how they were going. So far, so good.

He told me that he now had a premise for the story he wanted to do, though it was very rough, and he was actively looking for a writer to develop the project with him. Again, so far, so good.

I re-sent him my sample, and he read the first thirty pages of it on his iPad that evening, and liked it enough that we set up a meeting for the following day. So far, so very good.

We met for well over an hour. He talked about the idea that he had, and I bounced some thoughts off of him. He wasn’t crazy about anything I said, but he felt that I had a good sense of what he was looking for, so I said I’d work on it some, and I’d send him a treatment when I got the chance. I was working on a bunch of other projects at the time, so I told him it would be at least a few weeks, or maybe a month, before I got the chance to look into this and send it to him.

He was fine with that. But here’s where it went south.

I don’t remember how long it actually took me to look at my notes from our meeting. What I do remember is that by the time I was done working on those projects that had held me over in the first place, I had other projects in the works. And then others. And the couple of times I did look at my two pages of notes on this particular project,  I was completely uninspired to work on it, and had neither the time nor the ideas to develop the concept any further.

Thus beginneth the lesson: assuming, as I mentioned in the first paragraph of this post, that you’re not a complete a-hole, the number one mistake you can make when meeting a producer who’s interested in working with you on a writing assignment is waiting.

There will always be other projects to work on. And when you’ve got a system in place to get daily writing done and hard deadlines in place to work on those other projects, those other projects will likely get done. But when someone pitches you a new project, take the very first opportunity you have to work on it and get something into him. Not because he’s expecting it straight away, and not because you’ll be damaging the relationship if you don’t, but because that’s the best way to ensure that the work actually gets done.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn this lesson six months ago, I just learned it today, when I realized I’d made this mistake for the second time on a completely different meeting with a completely different producer. Granted, this time the offense wasn’t nearly so egregious: the meeting was not 9 months ago but 5 weeks ago, and I walked away with three-and-a-half hours of interview footage, as well as stacks of books, court documents, letters, and other material relating to the subject in question, all of which can (and has) helped me to get back into the mindset of the project as I’m trying to wrap my head around it. But the fact remains, when I left that all-day meeting 5 weeks ago I had the beginning of the film in my head, as well as the ending, and it would’ve taken only a few hours of work to come up with a pretty solid middle that would’ve gotten us at least moving in the right direction. Instead, I worked on other things, and now I’m having to play catch up, spending hours or even days re-familiarizing myself with the material so I can get back to where I was.

So don’t wait. If you’re meeting with someone for a potential writing assignment, carve out the rest of the day and night to get some writing done. Otherwise, plan on carving out the next several months.

Thus endeth the lesson.

David C. Martell on Flashbacks and The Life of David Gale

August 7, 2012

[Note: When I first published this post, I thought the article in question was written by Syd Field. That was an error on my part. My bad.]

A while back I exchanged a few blog posts with Michael Hauge on the subject of flashbacks, and two and a half years later those continue to be some of my most popular articles on this site. So when I saw an article from David C. Martell on the subject, I was immediately interested.

To summarize Martell’s overlong and repetitive piece:

  1. a good flashback moves the story forward by escalating conflict, rather than just giving us exposition
  2. The Life of David Gale is a bad movie, because the first two flashbacks don’t do this.

While I agree with the premise, I completely reject the assessment of The Life of David Gale. Somewhere buried in the end of the article’s quagmire of repetition is the recognition that the David Gale‘s flashbacks are really just a framing device; that the story takes place in the past and this is a reminder that “more exciting things are to come.” This technique is used constantly in films, particularly ones that take a while to set up.

But for some reason, Sunset Boulevard‘s careful setup warrants much more respect from Mr. Martell than David Gale‘s. Most egregiously, to me, is the following comment:

“You’d think a guy with only three days to live would cut to the chase!”

Um, no David, if you think that, you completely missed the point of the movie. He wants to be executed for a crime he didn’t commit, and now you’re saying that his lack of urgency is bad thing? It’s an essential character choice!

It gets even worse a few lines later:

“The situation at the end of the third flashback is EXACTLY THE SAME as the situation at the beginning of the movie… making all of the flashbacks (and the movie itself) pointless. The flashbacks don’t change the story in any way . . . A flashback needs to CHANGE the present situation. These flashbacks just wasted our time.”

Again, no. As you so aptly pointed out later on, the flashbacks were a framing device. The flashbacks are the story. By definition, they’re not going to change it.

Sorry you didn’t like the movie. But there are better examples for flashbacks that don’t change the story or escalate the conflict at all. It’s time to move on.

Fifty Shades, Showing v. Telling, and Gay Characters – Random Things for this Week

July 30, 2012

A few random things for this week:

  • Clinical psychologist rips Fifty Shades a new one – This article, Fifty Shades of Grey Giving Bondage a Bad Name,” is an opinion piece written by a clinical psychologist and published in the Sydney Morning Herald. In a nutshell, the author, who in 2006 published what at the time was the largest empirical psychological study on people in the BDSM community, doesn’t have a lot of great things to say about the book. While I agree with her on most counts — that the sex is “boring, repetitive, and leads women to aspire to undesirable and frankly unattainable goals,” that “in BDSM terms, Grey is a lightweight,” and that “Fifty Shades is just another bodice ripper,” I disagree that it demonizes BDSM and the people who practice it. Although I haven’t read all three books (I’ve skimmed most of the first two), from what I’ve read, it’s the protagonist who thinks it’s terrible (or odd, or unusual) at first, not the author. The protagonist becomes a convert, at least to an extent.

    Of course, her argument that the book gives the (false) impression that all people who practice BDSM are psychologically disturbed is not without merit. As a writer, I’m inclined to defend the author, purely from a standpoint of a good story needing good conflict. If Christian Grey was emotionally stable, Fifty Shades couldn’t have sustained a trilogy — nor would it have galvanized a bidding war for the movie rights.

    Regardless, it’s an interesting article. Check it out.

  • 5 Ways to Know If You’re Showing or Telling – Although the section on “dialogue tags” contradicts itself, lots of good suggestions here for improving writing quality.
  • A few weeks ago I was involved in a Facebook discussion about how gay characters are portrayed on screen.

    Then on Sunday I attended a script reading and listened to a script by someone completely unconnected to the community above, who wrote a script where the main character was gay and one of the points of the script is that his gayness was “not the driving force of the movie.” Coincidence or alien plot? You decide.

12.12 – We Bought a Zoo

July 9, 2012

And this continues our series of stories about buying a story and then ruining it.

As a friend of mine put it, “I didn’t know there was more to this story than what looked like a silly movie.” Well, there is. The book is an autobiographical tale about a British journalist living in Southern France who moved back to the UK and went in with the rest of his family to buy (and save) a zoo, against all odds. It’s an at-once romantic, pragmatic, and educational study of the animal kingdom, the value of persistence, and what it’s like to launch into such a high-risk yet high-reward (both financially and emotionally) business that you know nothing about. It delves into all kinds of topics, from homosexuality in the animal kingdom to losing a loved one to cancer.

And the movie could not have been more different.

What I don’t understand is why. There’s so much drama already in the story – why do you feel the need to mess it all up with a teenage romance, a phony excuse for why he’s getting into it, have him trying to go it alone (without his family), a deus ex machina in his (already dead) wife leaving him money to spend on the zoo, no one showing up on opening day BUT OH WAIT JUST KIDDING!, blah blah blah?

The drama was there already. You’ve got a wife who’s dying of cancer. You’ve got family members suing you to keep you from buying this zoo. You’ve got dozens of loan processors all but guaranteeing a loan and then backing out at the last minute. You’ve got animals escaping, animals you think have escaped (but turn out actually to be wild and indigenous to the region), and animals you have to give away, reducing the (perceived) value of the site.

They could’ve told this story – the one that was in the book – and though they obviously would’ve had to abbreviate it, and possibly combine a few characters, they easily could have made it into a great film. As it was, the movie was simply mildly entertaining slush.

Let this be a lesson to all: when the drama is there, don’t try to “add story elements” that the gurus tell you need to be there. Just tell a good story.

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