Monday, September 20, 2010

Reader question: How do I get started?

Maye writes in with a question:

What advice would a seasoned professional like you give a 17 year old with a whole bunch of ideas in multiple genres and SO much procrastination that all those (good?) ideas end up on her shelf collecting dust?

And if she ever was to complete a screenplay or two, what advice would you have on how to do something with them?

Running over to the nearest world famous production company and making a scene (no pun intended) to get them to give me a chance is not an option 'cause I seem to have found myself living in the desert (also known as the united arab emarites.)

Wow. You don't ask the easy ones, do you?

I do envy you. When I was 17, I wasn't able to access many writing resources on the internet. The best insight I had were some regular AOL Q&A's that writer Ron Moore did with fans while he was working on Deep Space Nine. It's not like today where many writers, wannabe writers, and writing teachers have blogs.

Step one is to learn your craft. Reading my blog is a good start. Also, read Scott Myers' Go Into The Story everyday. In fact, read it multiple times a day, as Scott updates like a madman. After that, read a screenwriting book or two. Most of them say pretty much the same thing, so my picks are anything by William Goldman, and then read Save the Cat so you can understand the way most Hollywood films are constructed.

Concurrent with that, read several scripts. Read scripts to movies you love so you can see how they were translated to the screen. In fact, Scott's GITS Club has complied an archive of recommended screenplays that you can access here.

It's easy to get stuck in this pre-writing phase, so be sure not to fall into that trap.

Then, start breaking your story. Decide which one you want to start with. Personally, I favor not making your first script that's something too ambitious. Don't try to reinvent the wheel. Look at this as a way of getting a feel for constructing a story, writing scenes, learning how to write succinct, interesting dialogue - and most importantly, creating distinct characters. It's hard to do all that and write a massive epic or a grand period piece.

If you start with something that means something to you, it might be easier to start developing your own voice. You say you have a lot of ideas - what ideas might be too ambitious and which ones are easier to achieve? You'll have better luck figuring out how to write a simple story with a clear lead and a defined arc. You're better off writing something with one or two protagonists rather than trying to write a "hyperlink" movie like Crash and Magnolia. It's really hard to balance multiple plotlines and a large cast of characters.

If you can, write everyday. If not every day, set a goal of a set number of pages a week. Don't obsess over getting your first draft perfect. It's more important to get it on paper. Most of writing is rewriting - and that's a helluva lot easier to do with a complete work rather than just a smattering of pages.

Oh, and when you finish that first draft - lock it up for a week. Seriously. Print it out. Don't look at it. Don't think about it. Don't do anything with it. You'll need fresh eyes when you come back to it.

Also, the odds are roughly 90% that your first script is going to be... less than stellar. That's okay. The first draft of that first script is likely to be even worse. That's okay too. The first script you write is not something you show around and blow people away with. It's not for them, it's for you.

Look, a pastry chef probably doesn't make a wedding cake as their first project. That's all I'm saying. You start with plan, ordinary cornbread muffins.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Look at the material with fresh eyes. Figure out what works and what doesn't. Could a scene be tighter? Does your main character change?

If you go the distance on your first script and find that you're not satisfied with it even after several drafts, it may be time to let it go and move onto something new. And I think you'll find that your second screenplay comes a lot more easily than the first.

As far as "doing something" with your script at long distance, I'm afraid I don't have a great many suggestions. I guess you should use the internet to your advantage. I'd start by joining several writing discussion boards and commenting on blogs. I know there are a few bloggers out there who have attracted the attention of agents and managers through their blogs. (By the by... if any of you agents out there are fans of my blog, come and get me.)

I admit, I'm less adept at offering advice on that end. Anyone else care to weigh in?

Anyway, that's the short version of my advice. The most important thing - get started. Stop thinking about your ideas and start committing them to paper. Procrastination is the enemy - and the only way to beat it is write.


  1. My advise is to read, read, read! Read everything you can, on just about every subject you can. TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION. I've come up with some pretty good ideas just by trawling a lot of weird news site and just about everything in between.

    Also, unless you are VERY talented, your writings for a great number years, or even DECADES are going to suck.

    Why? Because at 17 years old you've not experienced ANYTHING. Take a trip across the country, across the world. Do volunteer work, work a really, really shitty job you hate. All of it builds character, and you'll meet all sorts of characters for you to be able to base YOUR characters on.

  2. Maye, I disagree with the previous.

    Just because the rest of us were raw at first doesn't mean you will be.

    Try and be critical of your own work and be open to revision. Use the internet to learn everything you can.

    Being young doesn't mean you have nothing to say. You have experienced A LOT! You've been on the planet for 17 years. You live in a place many of us will never see in a culture few know a lot about. That life has given you a voice. Be loud with it and choose what you say with care. Start there.

    Oh yeah...get off your lazy butt and write! I've never seen a great script with the words "By : Itself" on the front.

  3. Here's one thing I've been thinking a lot.

    When you're reading scripts, don't read writer/directors. I can't remember how many times people in screenwriting classes say "but that's how Tarantino does it." Yeah, he's not writing scripts to sell, he's writing scripts to make.

    It's part of a bigger comment. As an aspiring screenwriter, you're not writing a movie, you're writing a screenplay to sell. If you don't understand the difference between the two, you're going to have problems.

  4. In addition to Bitter's and Go Into The Story, I recommend these blogs:

    Let's Schmooze, Doug Eboch on screenwriting

    John August, A ton of useful information about screenwriting

    Complications Ensue: The Crafty TV and Screenwriting Blog, Alex Epstein

    and of course all the archives at
    Jane In Progress, Jane Espenson

  5. And I now have Save The Cat on my iPhone Kindle. Thank you.

    Really like the advice on locking the script up for a week. It takes me longer before I can look at it with fresh eyes, but it is a must habit to pick up.

  6. Ask yourself, "Is it a movie?" Here's a great quote about this:

    "There’s a phrase you hear in Hollywood: 'It’s a movie.' I didn’t really understand that phrase when I first came into the business. It’s code for:

    'This script encompasses everything we need it to be: It can attract an actor, it can attract a director, it can be marketed. It’s complete.'"

    ---Screenwriter, Joe Forte, from "Tales from the Script," Edited by Peter Hanson and Paul Robert Herman, HarperCollins, p. 40.

    So find projects within your ideas that fit that bill and choose from among those first. You need to interface with a marketplace.

  7. After working in the industry for years and writing a bunch of screenplays, if I could go back in time and give advice to my 17 year-old self, it would be this: write novels. No one will read your screenplay.

    Unless you have pre-existing (really good) connections, it's probably a waste of time to write for film. Just my opinion.