Last month, I had the great good fortune to have been included in the Roadmap Writers Screenwriters Intensive Program. For those of you who don’t know Roadmap Writers they are an organization dedicated to providing film and television writers the tools to chart their own success.  This is from their website:

Our goal is to equip screenwriters with the tools and training needed to take their projects to the next level.    

My introduction to them was by chance. I was randomly searching for screenwriters networking groups one day and came across the Coletta Preacely-Garcia Diversity Initiative. Hel-lo, what’s this? Despite the talk of inclusion especially during the 2017 award season there is still a dearth of minority representation behind the camera and on the page so many organizations reach out to under-represented artists and I, for one, am grateful. Roadmap Writers Initiative award is one month’s free participation in their Screenwriting Intensive Program (a value of $300 which is well worth the price if you have the funds and can commit).

I should mention many (most?) of the writers live outside the LA area. This is a nationwide hook-up; using Zoom and Skype you can participate from anywhere.

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I am the first to admit that I am not over my ex. He broke up with me because he is an immature waste of space who is too stupid to see that I was the best thing about his whole ridiculous existence. But I may be biased. Actually, he said I didn’t support him enough – whatever that means. I know I’m better off without him. Who needs a three bedroom tract house in Chatsworth, spending weekends checking the pH in the pool and buying pizza rolls in bulk at Costco? Besides, if we married I would have had to change my name to “Mrs. Auto Parts Store Assistant Manager” and that’s too long to fit on a business card.

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I prefer my air-conditioned cave at the intersection of Independent Career Gal and Hot Chick Who Can Do Better. Not really, but I make it work. When you lose something you have come to rely on it’s hard to move on. You have to make it work. Somehow. It’s natural to go through the stages. You blame yourself for not being able to continue. You blame them for not compromising. You hate them. You love them. You hate that you love them. And you look for something to replace the pain. I feel the same way about my break up with Final Draft.

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imagesThe television drones in the background.  I’d like to watch that Game of Thrones episode for the eighth time, but I can’t now because I have to work on my script.  Or do I?  I guess it doesn’t really matter if the main character says “We are” or “We’re” in this particular moment.  Besides, my nineteenth favorite song is playing on Spotify.  I need to dance around the room.  Maybe I’ll work on the feature instead of the TV spec.  Or maybe I should work on my pitch for a new manager.  Damn, look at the laundry piling up.  I only have 24 hours until I have to go back to the day job from hell.  How can I concentrate when I have so much to do? Oh, look– something shiny.  Focus, Gayle.  FOCUS.

Has this ever happened to you?  You KNOW what you need to do.  But for some reason you are not doing it.  Sit down and write, damn it.  The lack of focus is a script killer.  Many writers do not outline. They may have some notes, but they basically let the words flow and the characters roam around for pages until they find the exit.  There is no clear goal or story direction.  A lot of meandering.   There is a lot of value to that sort of stream of conscious flowing, however when it is time to write you have to follow a clear, focused goal one step at a time. A concentrated effort leads to success or, in the words of Nike  “Just do it.”  So why can’t I?  I have rewrites that I absolutely need to do before I can send any of my new stuff out.  Even writing this post is causing some agita.  But that’s not what I need to focus on.   I have done the work; not my first time at the rodeo.  But it is the first time in over a dozen years when I am without representation.  So I have to get back to work by getting a new rep.  Not an easy task by any stretch.   I have a fear of failing.  So perhaps my subconscious futzing around is designed to delay a nerve-wracking necessity.

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Why these screenplays?  And why only ten?  I didn’t want to overwhelm you with the number of truly great, original scripts that became truly great original films.  And frankly,  I didn’t want to depress myself by questioning why I didn’t of think of this or why can’t I write like that.  But for you, brave soldier, read on and be inspired.  And if you’re like me and depress easily read them anyway.  Great writing inspires.  Always.

Casablanca  – Julius J. Epstein & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch – Okay there were scads more writers and many behind the scenes drafts.  And there was no official screenplay at the start of production.  But through some alchemy with a few gallons of spit and polish this story based on the play “Everybody Goes To Rick’s” came together and landed the top spot on the Writer’s Guild of America’s 101 Greatest Screenplays. Here’s looking at you, kid.

Chinatown  – Robert Towne – What you see is definitely not what you get in the 1970s film noir revival.  The original script was good, but Roman Polanski’s modifications took it into the stratosphere.  Sometimes writers do need a director’s vision and this was the perfect marriage of writer and director to birth an Academy Award winning classic.

Network  – Paddy Chayefsky – Social satire is one of the most difficult genres to master, but when it is done well we have Network.  The script takes aim at American television in the 1970s as a reflection of our vast art vs. commerce, politics as entertainment, nothing matters more than money culture.  The true testament to this screenplay is how utterly spot on it is today.

Annie Hall – Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman – Not all Romantic Comedies are all that romantic as the coupling of Annie and Alvy proves.  The comedy is nuanced and acknowledges relationships as complex, living organisms that bring as many tears as laughs.   Showing equal perspectives of two people falling out of love gives a clever take on the blame game.   Life is after all bittersweet and often breaks the fourth wall.

Die Hard – Jeb Stuart and Stephen E. DeSouza – If you aspire to write action or if you just want to feel like you’ve been pushed out of a window in your bare feet cut from all the broken glass, then this is your script.  Die Hard ticks all the boxes of what audiences want in a popcorn induced thrill ride.  The granddaddy of all heart-pumping, wise-cracking, balls of steel, who cares about the plot as long as it reaches the $100 million mark movies.  Despite the circumstances, we still want to be John McClane.  He’s smart and cool and tough and earns his happy ending while killing the bad guys and running circles around the idiots in charge.  The Die Hard franchise (thanks mostly to star Bruce Willis as McClane) was so popular it changed the way producers do business and spawned the million dollar pitch craze, “Have I got a screenplay for you – ‘Die Hard’ on a bus.  It’s called ‘Speed’.”

Do The Right Thing – Spike Lee – There is something so visceral about the movie that makes if hard for me to watch. That means the characters and story deliver such an unsympathetic emotional wallop that I am required to take several hours to reflect on how we interact with one another.  It forces discussion and if it doesn’t make you have an opinion on the continuing struggle to find common ground then you should check your neck and wrists for a pulse.

Thelma & Louise  – Callie Khouri – Coming on the heels of the Clarence Thomas hearings where Anita Hill bravely spoke her truth to Congress, Khouri’s script touched a feminist nerve.  Two women over 35 (Yes, women in Hollywood do live beyond the age of 30) whose lives are irrevocably altered by violence and fight to deal with the consequences on their own terms is not an easy sell to studios. The script is so well written in concept and execution that no less than Ridley Scott did the directing honors.  This is more than a road trip, more than a female bonding exercise.  This screenplay shows empowerment through action.  Any screenplay that allows women to call the shots, even if to escape the constraints of what men dictate, is far more liberating than a script where the females are merely window dressing for the male leads. Brava.

Pulp Fiction – Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary – There is something so organic about the dialogue that is a testament to Tarantino’s trust in the audience to understand meandering as character development is not a waste of time.  The story itself is a pure adrenaline shot to the heart featuring interconnected episodes of characters from the fringes of our noir-lite fantasy culture.  This screenplay resurrected the out-of-sequence method of storytelling that previously or in less skilled hands seemed gimmicky.  Granted, Pulp Fiction is not for everyone, but it definitely gives insight into the writers’ minds.  Every word on the page is their voice and for an emerging screenwriter it is so important to establish yourself – even if it includes a ball gag and a Royale with cheese.

Memento – Christopher Nolan – from a short story by Jonathan Nolan – Speaking of deconstruction storytelling, Memento flawlessly delivers on a complex narrative structure that could go sideways at any moment.  The scenes unfold front-to-back as the reveals come back-to-front in flashback. Innovative, yes.  Mysterious, check.  Confusing, absolutely.  The kind of confusing that begs to be read again and again and again and even then all the details when woven together to make sense still give a tingle when something new is discovered.

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woman-41201__180I’ll be honest, Stephanie Palmer’s post “The Great Query Letter Hoax” scared the shit out of me.  Her observations of the industry are spot on, so for her to take such an aggressive stance against the tried and true granddaddy method of getting a foot on the ladder is cause for alarm.  I got my first agent off a query letter.  I’ve also gotten a couple of meetings from “Hail Mary” letters to strangers.  Nothing came of them, but still– the letters worked.

So here we are in 2015.  The Millenials have taken over and social media rules the world.  Have query letters gone the way of the dinosaur, VHS tapes and My Space?  What does an emerging screenwriter do in the 21st century to break through the layers of odds stacked against them?

Let’s break this bitch down.  How do you answer these questions? 1) Have you ever worked in the industry? 2) Do you know anyone who can refer you?  3) Will someone up the ladder recommend your writing? 4) Have you won or been a finalist in any major contest?  5) Do you have an alternate sample of your work — i.e. short film/trailer or graphic novel? If you can’t answer Yes to at least one of those questions then (and don’t take this the wrong way, really – it’s not personal, I don’t even know you) query letters are a waste of your time and money.  Not forever, just right now.

Here’s why – and this is where I agree with Stephanie Palmer – producers and representatives want to work with a known commodity.  Someone they can vet who is an easy sell.  Actors want to see the money before they become attached; how is the project financed and are they on the level? A novice script, no matter how good or original will not climb to the top of the heap without SOMETHING to back you up.  Get that?  YOU, not your script.  When it comes down to it your pages are not special enough on their own. You can throw a rock from any corner in Hollywood and hit a writer with an awesome fucking screenplay in the trunk of their car.  What a legitimate player wants is a popular writer with a bestselling novel – Gillian Flynn “Gone Girl.”  A great script from a blogger with a fan base – Diablo Cody “Juno.”  On the Black List – Damien Chazelle “Whiplash.” Read More →

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Part 1 was feature films.  This is Television (does anyone else hear angels singing?)

Huge season finales.  Gigantic series premieres.  Tremendous casting news.  Record-breaking ratings.  This is the new Golden Age of Television (cue “Hallelujah” chorus) and you crave to be part of it.  Wake up, rookie, and smell the sweat dripping into your eyes.  You know, the droplets that mix with your tears.  The reality is some TV writers make it and most don’t.

No, this isn’t another one of my drunken rants on how I can’t believe my life sucks so bad.  This list is supposed to be helpful.  What do staffed writers have that you haven’t?  A fucking awesome pilot script to show anyone who can get it to the top of the pile.  Now it’s your turn.  Start writing.

Record scratch.  Have the angels stopped singing?  What’s that you say?  You’re stuck in a confidence loop and fear your script may not be good enough?  This probably doesn’t help, but you’re not alone.  We all want our work to be the next Breaking Bad or Orange Is The New Black but you know, our own original work.  My head hurts.  Sometimes you put so much pressure on yourself to do the best ever out of anyone because the competition to break in is so fierce. You can no longer see the forest for the trees.  Time to unpack this shit and start from word one.  And you can’t do it alone.  Don’t expect the Archangel Gabriel to whisper sweet plot points into your ear.  No shade, just the facts.

When you get stuck on your spec script or pilot, it always helps to seek information from people who’ve taken the time to study TV craft and write what they know.  You’re doing everything right, of course, but just in case you need back-up check these books out.   I don’t swear by all the advice all the time, but each one has something to offer.  You’ll pick your own golden nuggets.

Comedy Writing for Late Night TV by Joe Toplyn

Crafty TV Writing: Thinking Inside the Box by Alex Epstein

Story Line: Finding Gold in Your Life Story  by Jen Grisanti

TV Writing ToolKit:  How to Write a Script that Sells by Jen Grisanti

Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin

Television Writing from the Inside Out by Larry Brody

The TV Showrunner’s Roadmap by Neil Landau

The TV Writer’s Workbook:  A Creative Approach to Television Scripts by Ellen Sandler

Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin

Writing Television Comedy by Jerry Rannow

Writing Television Sitcoms by Evan S. Smith

Writing the TV Drama Series by Pam Douglas

Writing for Visual Media by Anthony Friedman

Baby writers, rejoice! Remember, you’re not stuck, you’re reaffirming your commitment to great writing.  Do your best and you, too will be one of the chosen, golden few.

 

library-488690_640.jpgBKS_FI could give you a big attaboy/yougogirl pep talk about how these authors will inspire the beejesus out of you and spark your creativity and skill set to the point where the Academy just shows up at your door and hands you the damn award.  But you know how this works.  You’ve probably read most of these screenwriting books anyway.  Read ’em again.  And don’t be surprised if you find a new tip you can use on your next project.

FOR A FIRST SCREENPLAY

Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting by William Goldman

• Every time this book is read, a writer gets their wings.

The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri

Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need by Blake Snyder

• I am constantly watching films looking for the “Save the cat” moment.  His basic outlines and beat sheet templates are a great “cat”ch, too.  And check out the other “Save the Cat” books in the series.

How to Write a Screenplay in 21 Days by Viki King

• The most fundamental way to get ‘er done.

How to Write a Selling Screenplay by Christopher Keane

The Coffee Break Screenwriter: Writing Your Script Ten Minutes at a Time by Pilar Alessandra

• She’s got a great concept that really works when you’re using lack of time as an excuse to not write.

The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay: How to Write Great Screenplays for Movies and Television by Cynthia Whitcomb

The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script by Dave Trottier

• Great reference pages.

MANY SCREENPLAYS LATER

Getting It Write:  An Insider’s Guide to a Screenwriting Career by Lee Zahavi Jessup

• The woman’s got the goods.  Look her up.

Making a Good Script Great, 3rd Ed. by Linda Seger

• If screenwriters had a fairy godmother…

Inside Story: The Power of the Transformational ARC by Dara Marks

Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach by Paul Gulino.

Breakfast with Sharks: A Screenwriters Guide to Getting the Meeting, Nailing the Pitch, Signing the Deal and Navigating the Murky Waters of Hollywood by Michael Lent

The Writer Got Screwed (but didn’t have to) by Brooke A. Wharton

• The legal stuff

WHEN YOU NEED A REFRESHER

Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee

• You still have to read it at least once more.

The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition by Christopher E. Vogler

Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field

• Amen.

Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters, Storytelling Secrets from the Greatest Mind in Western Civilization by Michael Tierno

Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge

• There is a twentieth anniversary of this book for a reason

Bird by Bird, Some instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott

On Writing: 10th Anniversary Edition: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

• If you’re looking for inspiration it doesn’t get better than the master.

china-542393__180The atmosphere is electric.  The energy surges through the room wet with anticipation, apprehension and fear. You have your idea honed to perfection. You’ve sharpened your pitching skills and now is the time to show what you’ve got.  Sell that sucker.  Get that representation.  Or die trying.

Watching participants queue up like warriors going into battle for a pitch fest reminds me of the scene in The Hunger Games when the combatants come out of the tubes knowing that in seconds they will be fighting the elements and each other for survival.  A little dramatic perhaps, but for an emerging screenwriter a pitch fest is one of the necessary evils that determine industry survival.

ACCESS, BABY, ACCESS

Pitch fests are weekend events usually held in a hotel or convention center near a local airport.  You know an event is a BFD when there’s an airport close by.  Participating writers pay hundreds, even thousands (if you include hotel, air fare and the goodies purchased at the obligatory trade show/book fair) for the opportunity to gain access to agents, managers and creative executives.  Writers wait in line for their allotted five minutes to sit with an insider hoping their pitch gets a “Yes, send me the script.  Here’s a million dollars.”  Check this promo out.

This kind of enthusiasm from The Great American Pitchfest fuels access events that have sprouted up all over the world. Seriously, you can pitch in Los Angeles, New York, London, Vancouver, pick your poison.  I have a list of popular pitchfests in my toolkit.   Even online pitch events and year round pitching services offer writers the access they cannot get anywhere else. Where else can an emerging writer have the opportunity to meet a dozen or more industry insiders in one weekend?

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books-498422__180.jpg_SFSAnyone writing a screenplay knows how hard it is to make it a good read.  When the last drop of blood blots the page we will emerge with at least one fantastic calling card and more than a few juicy stories about how we got there.  Hopefully, they will be produced and set our course for some pretty great careers.  As inspiration, here are some first screenplays that did just that for their authors.  Might be worth a read when you get a chance.

•    Being John Malkovich by Charlie Kaufman (1999)
•    Boys Don’t Cry by Kimberly Peirce and Andy Bienen          (1999)
•    Clerks by Kevin Smith (1994)
•    Dear White People by Justin Simien (2014)
•    Donnie Darko by Richard Kelly (2001)
•    Ghost World by Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff (2001)
•    Girl 6 by Suzan-Lori Parks (1996)
•    Hard Eight by Paul Thomas Anderson (1996)
•    High Art by Lisa Cholodenko (1998)
•    Kids by Harmony Korine (1995)
•    The Imitation Game by Graham Moore (2014)
•    In the Company of Men by Neil LaBute (1997)
•    Juno by Diablo Cody (2007)
•    Kissing Jessica Stein by Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeldt  (2001)
•    Little Monsters by Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot (1989)
•    Love & Basketball by Gina Prince-Bythewood (2000)
•    Margin Call by J.C. Chandor (2011)
•    Milk by Dustin Lance Black (2008)
•    Nebraska by Bob Nelson (2013)
•    Pi by Darren Aronofsky (1998)
•    Precious by Geoffrey Fletcher (2009)
•    Rachel Getting Married by Jenny Lumet  (2008)
•    Spanking the Monkey by David O. Russell (1994)
•    Star Maps by Miguel Arteta (1997)
•    Tiny Furniture by Lena Dunham  (2010)
•    Wilder Napalm by Vince Gilligan (1993)

Don’t know where to find screenplays?  There are plenty of sites like the following where you can download scripts free or for a fee: Script-O-Rama;  The Weekly Script;  Screenplays for You; Simply Scripts; Script Fly; Script City

Some screenplays have been published in book form.  Check on Amazon or where ever you get your books.  Your local library may have some if cash is an issue.  If you’re in Los Angeles and have an afternoon you can read scripts at the Writers Guild of America Script Library.  It’s located in the WGA building at 7000 W. 3rd Street @ Fairfax Ave.

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My favorite Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “Permanence is an illusion.”  I know what you’re thinking.  What a crazy, sexy, kick ass cool broad I must be that I have a favorite Greek philosopher.   He also said, “Character is destiny. ” A-ha.  Right?  You’re welcome.  It’s a statement so simple yet insanely profound.  Writing a successful screenplay requires understanding your characters so you can design their destiny.  The plot and action and dialogue will always suffer without strong three dimensional individuals drawing the audience in.  A lot of writers prefer to let their characters develop themselves.  Sure, I get that.  Some writers only know the basic want/need/goal and the details of the character will sort themselves.  That’ll work in the first draft, but when it’s time to submit you have to remember that no actor wants to play a role that does not function on many layers.

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