Definitions

I came across this terrific quote on Go Into the Story the other day:

“If you just define yourself as a screenwriter, and you have a bad day as a screenwriter, then that’s your whole world. You’re building your life on this very singular pylon. It’s important to remember that you’re a brother or a father or a boyfriend, and also that you have interests and hobbies that feed you and nourish you, and bring ideas in and balance you out. If I have a bad day screenwriting, I can come out to my studio, and I can paint and connect with myself. It’s important to build a broad life that feeds you, that nourishes you, that gives you stability.”

– Joe Forte (Firewall) from “Tales from the Script”

Cut this out, paste it over your laptop, and then take his advice: add a pylon to the career you are building.

And I will do the same.

Stuff happens – deals fall through – computers eat pages – writing sometimes sucks. If you have all your eggs in one basket, you’d better get used to a steady diet of scrambles.

I have to say, I’m very good at the career part of diversifying.  I don’t define myself as just a screenwriter – in terms of writing, I’ll try anything.  I’ve worked professionally in theater, news, episodic television, and features, and I’m writing my first novel.  I’ve had a couple of short stories and essays published, and I co-created a webseries.  When it comes to having lots of props for my career, I rock.

It’s the non-writing stuff I need to work on.  The soul-nourishing bits.  Argh, who has time to be nourished and happy??

Yes.  I know.  Working on it.

What do you do, either to fulfill yourself outside of writing or to expand your horizons as a writer?  I’d love to hear.

 

Every Story is a Mystery

If I were better at this blogging business, there would be a link here to a *really good blog post* that I recently read and commented on about using screenwriting techniques to liven up novel writing.  But I still suck at blogging, I had stumbled across the post, and now for the life of me I can’t remember where it was or who wrote it.

If it was you, I apologize.  You rock.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  One way screenwriters have an advantage over novelists is that we do not have the luxury of 350 pages to tell our story.  We get maybe 105.  With lots of white space.  We are forced to edit-edit-edit.  We have to figure out how to feed backstory – for instance – to the audience in a few swift strokes.  Personally, I think the best way to do this is to create a little mystery.

You know the old saying, “show, don’t tell?”  For backstory, I say, don’t tell AND don’t show.  I never ever need to see the flashback of the trauma that changed our hero.  Yawn.  What I need instead are the consequences of the trauma.  Think of Indiana Jones, who barely blinks while facing certain death eight ways from Sunday in the opening minutes of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” absolutely freaking out because there’s a snake in the plane with him. 

We don’t know for two more movies why he hates snakes – we don’t need to know.  We can tell a lot about him just from his reaction.  It humanizes him, it’s funny, and it pays off later in “Raiders.”  Talk about bang for the buck.

Plus it’s more fun for the audience to watch something and not quite know why it’s happening.  Imagine a 1950s setting, a gaggle of well-dressed women lunching at a country club.  All of a sudden a new woman enters.  On the outside, she looks just like the women already there.  But as soon as people notice her, they stop talking.  The chatter has grown completely silent around her as she moves through the room.  The Maitre D’ walks her to her seat, by the window, where she sits at a table for two.  Alone.  How she handles the moment – how the other women (individually perhaps, or united as one) handle her being there – that creates tension and drama and it’s all built on the mystery of what’s going on?  What has made this woman an outcast?  Eventually you’ll have to tell, but giving us the consequences of her backstory before the story itself creates an oasis of mystery that is completely engaging.

Notice that neither of these is a mystery story per se.  Building mystery as a writing technique is effective and fun for screenwriters and novelists alike.  What about you?  Have you built mini-mysteries into either your novel or your screenplay?  Let me know how it worked for you.

Pitching is a Numbers Game

I have a client who shall remain nameless.  (Hi, Bob!)  (Kidding.  I’ve also changed some details.)

I had not seen the guy I’ll call Bob in over a year when he e-mailed me to say that he was discouraged because, in that year, he had not sold his screenplay.  I asked him how many times he had pitched it, and the answer was five.  Five times, no nibbles.

Now, since I know for a fact that this is a good project, I admit to being kind of surprised.  So I questioned further and this is what I discovered.  Of the five pitches,

– One was to a friend and fellow writer.

– Three were to agents or managers.

– One was to a production company that could have bought the screenplay.

At which point I took several deep breaths and calmly told Bob the facts of life.  Pitching is a numbers game.  Pitching your script to five production companies should be enough to get at least one of them to request a copy of the script, assuming you’ve done some homework and you’re pitching to companies that produce scripts like yours.  However, you may need to get five or ten reads before you get an option or a sale.  That works out to around 50 pitches.  To producers.

Agents will be the subject of another post – and I love agents, they’re an important piece of a career puzzle – but take this to heart: Agents aren’t buyers.  Exactly zero percent of the time will an agent pay you for your script.

You would not go out on one date with one person and expect to be married in the next five minutes; think of pitching your screenplay as serial dating.  Enjoy it!  Learn to love the dates – I mean, pitches.  Track them.  Keep a database of everyone to whom you have pitched the project – both the company name and the name of the person to whom you spoke.  Get those numbers up.  How many calls does it take to get a read?  To get a meeting?  Don’t obsess when you get a “no.”  Thank them, ask them what they are looking for (hey, maybe you can set them up with your best friend’s script!) and move on.  The more you get out there, the more likely you are to find the right fit for your project.

Tracking also lets you regroup when necessary.  If no one bites after twenty pitches, there may be something wrong with your pitch.  If the pitch is getting you in the door but no one buys the script after reading it, revisit your work.  Give it to a trusted and experienced friend for notes.

Writing is great, always keep writing, but if you want it to exist in a form outside of your laptop, you have to add in pitching.  A lot of pitching.  It’s a numbers game, and you have to be in it – in a big way – to win it.

 

More Thoughts on the Value of Free

I’ve been lurking around the web, seeing what other bloggers have to say about free options.  Most of them think they’re a terrible idea.  And I absolutely agree.  Usually.  Here’s a really good post on the pros and cons by Larry Zerner: http://zernerlaw.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/should-you-give-a-producer-a-free-option-on-your-script/

Across the board, the main argument against a free option is that a producer has no incentive to sell or produce your work if he or she hasn’t put any money into it.  Once they’ve sunk even a few hundred dollars into the option, they’re more likely to hustle a bit, if only to recoup their costs.

There’s only one problem: I have worked with a lot of producers who *have* paid me for my work and still don’t set the project up.  While a free option provides no incentive, a paid option is no guarantee that the producer is worth his salt.  What to do?

First of all, I make a lot of mistakes.

Second – once I’ve recovered – I try to pitch my material primarily to producers I like and respect.  That does help.  Pitching also keeps the amount of free work down to a minimum.

Third, I’ve found that keeping the terms of the option reasonable is key.  I like 6 months, with the option to renew for 6 more if someone’s biting, although other writers prefer shorter terms.  Producers invariably want longer terms, and honestly I understand that, especially in TV.  There are no hard and fast rules.

And you know what?  I still give out free options, usually to friends.  I’m about to give away a short, for instance, just for credit.  Why do I do this?

Possibly because I’m an idiot.

But also because these are people I love, people I’m excited to work with, people who energize me just by being in the same room with them.  People I believe are going to succeed at making movies – and I want some of them to be my movies.

How about you?  Anyone have a good (or horribly bad!) free option story to share?

 

Finding Your Tribe(s)

One of the great things about life today is the Internet.  It makes it possible for you to find like-minded people anywhere in the world.  It cuts through the isolation of small towns and new cities and allows you to take a laptop full of connections with you no matter how many times your job makes you relocate.  I am cautiously optimistic that it will someday even make high school less devastating.

Hey, there was a reason the teen Buffyverse was set on the Hellmouth.

Problem is, it’s vast.  Billions of bits of information – blogs – tweets – posts – articles – yikes.  Who has the time to rummage through all that?  On the other hand, who can afford not to?  If we’re on the web at all, it’s that we want to connect.  I know this because I’m struggling with it right now.  And to cut to the chase: I have no answers.  But I have some thoughts.

First: I need to embrace that this is going to take a lot of time.

Second: I need to compartmentalize.

I am many things: a writer, a geek, a pitch consultant, a producer, a lover of Golden Age mysteries, a terrible cook… really, the list is endless.  And while it might be nice to find another such, it’s not really necessary.  I can gush about Ngaio Marsh’s books with one set of friends and bemoan my cooking to a whole different, sympathetic bunch.

The trick – I think – is to tackle one thing at a time.  Right now, I’m looking for fellow writers, people who play with ideas, who love words, who, like me, are in the trenches, trying to figure out how to make a living by making people laugh and think and cry.  My virtual identity – my pitch for myself – has to line up with that.  Because it’s not just about me finding you – you have to be able to find me as well.

Feel free to list any links you think I might like in the Comment section.  Pitch what you’re looking for – which specific tribe you currently want to find – and I’ll do the same.  And if you want hot chefs with gourmet recipes… well, maybe another blogger can help you with that!