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I decided to create an addendum to this article, originally posted in 2010, due to insights that I wanted to add. I understand from feedback that this checklist has been quite helpful to my readers. I hope the additional comments will make it more so.

As writers, we all need to start somewhere. Ask anyone who writes for a living, and they’ll tell you: they’re a better writer today than they were a year ago. The simple fact is, do anything long enough, and your skills improve. The same goes for writing.

I’ve worked as a fiction editor and story analyst since 1996, and have judged adult fiction in writing competitions. Many of my writing clients have been first time writers. In analyzing their manuscripts, I’ve noticed some recurring writing tendencies, what I call “habits of prose,” that severely limit the content – sometimes rendering the manuscript unmarketable.

If you have your first fiction manuscript in hand, try checking your work against the list below of the most common writing omissions and errors made by first time writers:

Proper Formatting

Don’t let something so simple and basic hurt your chances of being well-received by anyone who holds your manuscript. Standard formatting is so easy: Times New Roman or Courier font in a 12pt typeface. 1″ margins on top/bottom and sides. A SMALL header containing your: last name/book title followed by 5 spaces and the page number, all on one line in the upper right hand corner of each page. The header makes it easier for any reader to track where they are in your manuscript and what/who they’re reading throughout. For a busy professional, this ease of management can make the difference between being read or rejected, so don’t let your hard work be demolished by a lack of attention to expected details out in the real world of publishing. Also, use hard page breaks to eliminate hanging windows, phrases or sentences that run from one page to another. Having a little extra space at the bottom of a page is okay if it means keeping a thought coherent. If you are using Chapter Headings, make sure to put a hard page break at the end of each chapter. A new chapter should start on a new page. There are other small tricks to formatting that are more about personal choice of the author, such as extra spaces between paragraphs to indicate a time or scene change, but you don’t need to get into that until your final line edit, although seeing this device properly used beforehand is always a joy. Just make sure that your manuscript is formatted to allow for the greatest ease of reading, tracking and managing before you submit it to anyone, even casual readers, so you don’t burn bridges.

Characters/Back-Story

You may think you don’t need to go through this common writer’s exercise, but the fact is, the better you know your characters, the easier it will be for you to know what he/she will do in any given situation, and the clearer your character will be on the page, even if, and especially if, you don’t use all the back story you create. Knowing what shaped your character into who they are when your story opens is a key exercise for inhabiting your story with memorable characters. And, unfortunately, when a writer omits this step, sooner or later in the story, it shows.

Engage the Reader’s Senses

Many beginning writers fail to utilize taste, smell, touch and hearing in their storytelling. I once read a thriller by a first time writer, which took place in India. The entire time I felt as though the story was taking place in some gray zone. Here I was in India, and it felt like the clouds! Ground your reality with the things we all pick up on in our environments everyday. Use weather, smells, sounds, how something feels in one’s hand…to bring realism and place to your story. After all, if your story takes place in an exotic locale, it’s your job to take the reader along!

Give Every Character an Arc

Although some of us never learn, it’s irritating to a reader when your characters don’t. Nobody wants to read about a character who goes through some great adventure only to have them end up no different than they started once the smoke clears. Even minor characters should be shaped by the events you put them through.

Clear Definition between Characters in Dialogue

Again, this is a benefit of doing back story on each character. Many new writers end up creating characters that all talk the same way, even when they come from supposedly diverse backgrounds. You don’t expect a southern belle to express herself the same way as a mercenary soldier, and you don’t want your characters all sounding like you! Back story helps you know your characters so well that they cannot express themselves the same way. If you’re still stuck, try creating a simple scenario and situation, put each of your characters in that, and write how each one feels about it and expresses what happened.

Organic Flow of Time and Scenes

When you watch a good movie or read a good book, there is an element working that you may not be consciously aware of, and that is the logical and organic flow of one scene to the next, of one element of your story leading logically into the next element. The flow of information should always be a conscious and deliberate choice of the author. This gives the reader/viewer a sense of time within which the story unfolds. Many new writers struggle with a cohesive alignment within their story and I believe it comes from a reluctance to eliminate scenes that do not serve the whole story during the self-editing process. There is a wonderful literary quote, with conflicting sources cited if you look it up online, but it’s a quote all writers should live by: “For good writing, you must be willing to kill your darlings.”  As writers, we all get caught up in the excitement of our ideas, scribbling them down as fast as possible on any surface available. But the thing is, even some of our most brilliant ideas will not serve a story as a whole, and we must be willing to sacrifice those brilliant little darlings on the altar of good storytelling. It’s probably one of the hardest lessons in developing your craft, and one of the most difficult disciplines to enforce on your writing, but it must be done if your goal is to create a quality product.

Your challenge is to look at each scene to determine the flow of your story and to be ruthless with yourself when a scene you’ve written (that you just LOVE) really does not work, does not serve or stands out awkwardly from the rest. Cut them out and paste them in a separate document so you can refer back to them if you must, but cut, cut, cut. It’s your best friend. And use formatting tricks for indicating big time leaps or POV changes.

Clear Sense of Place

In a way, this vital element of good fiction relates to the item cited above, using the senses. Every story unfolds somewhere. We are sensory beings who experience our environments through our physical being. Ensuring that your readers experience the environment of your story is just as important as ensuring they experience your plot or premise.  So many new writers dash about from scene to scene without grounding the reader firmly in each place. My intuitive response to this common omission is, if it’s not important to ground me where the action is, maybe the action isn’t so important.

Most of us spend years working on a story. We can get so close to it, know it so well, that we often forget to include important information for those who know nothing of our story. It is a fine line, deciding what you can allow a reader to “fill in” and what must be presented as a full painting. Make sure to review your scenes with this sense of grounding in a solid “place,” whether your story unfolds on a wildly-advanced, organically intelligent, interstellar space ship – or a quaint  and sunny sidewalk cafe on the ancient island of Malta. Creating vague locations well get you a “no-pass” from publishers and readers alike.

Defining Your Premise

Why are you telling this story? What do you want a reader to walk away with after reading it? Is there an understanding or basic underlying philosophy to your story? Maybe you’re writing about courage in the face of great adversity (a common element for any drama). Maybe you feel that doing “the right thing” pays off in the end, no matter how it looks, and this is your underlying message. Maybe your story is more literary, full of angst and condemnation of the human race or western culture. Many great writers have taken on that challenge, framing the human dilemma within one character and using his environment as metaphor to deliver a subtle or not so subtle message about ourselves.

The thing is, most new writers don’t think of their story in this manner, from such a remote overview. If you had to boil down the message of your story into one line, what would that be? It’s actually quite helpful to gain clarity on your premise before you start writing. You can tape it to your computer as an anchor that keeps you from wandering too far. Knowing your premise is like having a glue that will keep all elements of your story relevant and connected to each other. Knowing your premise can help you eliminate ideas that have the power to pull you from your narrative path, wasting time and brain power on ideas that don’t quite fit.

There is a wonderful book I have on my reference shelf titled “A Story is a Promise,” written by Bill Johnson, manager of Willamette Writers, (the largest and oldest writer’s group in the U.S.), teacher, author and friend. If you feel at all fuzzy about the concept of a premise or its importance, I highly recommend this book. Heck, I recommend it to all storytellers, no matter your level of craft.

Sending Queries before a Book Proposal is Complete

Ah, the dreaded Book Proposal. Unless you plan on self-publishing, a book proposal is a marketing tool that your agent needs to shop your manuscript to a publisher. You must have this ready to send out along with any other sections of your manuscript that an agent wants you to send. There are plenty of books and information on how to create a book proposal, so I won’t go into that herein. However, I will share the cautionary tale of one writing client of mine who lost representation by a well known and very busy agent, because he was scrambling to assemble his proposal. He wasn’t prepared to respond immediately to her interest from his query, and she wasn’t interested in representing an unprofessional writer.

* * * *

It’s an unfortunate fact that, even if you’ve never been published, all agents expect professional level manuscripts and materials from any writer they represent. This means your work must compete against an enormous and never-ending slush pile of submissions. The good news is, if your writing is any good at all, you stand a chance of “getting the ink.”

So check your manuscript to see if your story has all the necessary elements required to transport the reader into your world, whatever world that is. Make sure you get a professional editing job done on your manuscript before submitting it anywhere. And compile a book proposal to have ready to send out to any positive responses you receive to your queries. Once an agent is contacted, and disappointed, it’s extremely rare that they will be bothered with you again, so make sure your materials represent your best abilities right out of the gate.

Break a pen!


Screenwriter of: Edward Scissorhands/The Addams Family/The Nightmare before Christmas/Black Beauty/Corpse Bride.

The Ballroom for this event was predictably packed with those eager to hear words of inspiration and career insights from this iconic screenwriter known mostly for her work with director Tim Burton. As she sat on the stage and shared her early childhood stories, I was immediately reminded of the character Scout, from To Kill a Mockingbird, and was a bit surprised when she eluded to feeling sympatico with that character herself. She was present at AFF 2011 to receive the AFF “Distinguised Screenwriter” award, presented to her by Johnny Depp, and to promote her new company, Small and Creepy Films. (www.smallandcreepy.com).

Caroline said that, since the age of four, she knew she wanted to “cast spells” with images and stories, adding that she has found that life is not about self-discovery, but about self-creation. She also said that every story she writes is essentially about dogs. “I think I was a dog in another life. All I want to write about is dogs,” Thompson said, citing her family dog as a remarkable animal who profoundly influenced her point of view from an early age.

Her first novel, First Born (1993) was inspired by a remark made to her by her mother, a woman not known for her tact or sensitivity of expression to others. As Caroline put it, the book was about an abortion that comes back to life to haunt its mother. Given Caroline’s proclivity to craft strange tales about strange characters, it seemed quite apropos that she would begin her writer’s journey with such a quirky fable. Yet, as she shared her writer’s journey, we got that her work is truly an honest extension of how she experiences life.

Of course, she had her share of Hollywood horror stories, saying that she has been fired five times from various projects over the course of her screenwriting career, and outright betrayed on a few occasions, saying, “I’ve learned not to put my soul in Hollywood’s way.”

She kept us laughing and amazed at her resilience, tossing off the hurt and disappointment, always focusing on what she wanted to do as a storyteller. On genre writing, she said, “Whatever it is that feeds you, let it feed you. Your only job is to find your voice.”

She also offered tips on dealing with various rights of passage to those who aspire to be screenwriters. On dealing with nerves before pitching, she said, “I just pretend it’s my cocktail party, and it’s my job to make them (studio execs) comfortable.”

For novelists and writers of fiction, she offered the tip that, when you sell a book, if you ask for the rights back after ten years, they have to give them back to you.

On getting through a complete screenplay, she outlined her own process. “I race through the first draft,” she said, “writing five pages a day before I let myself stop.” She said she doesn’t force herself to write more, even if she is inclined because she has learned that five pages a day is the right pace for her, adding that all writers have to find what works best for them. “My first draft is done in a month,” she said, then shared that she revises it about five times before she ever shows it to anyone else.

On creativity and finding that in oneself, she said, “Everything we do all day long is a creative act.” A remarkable, independent artist, when she said this, I’m pretty certain that everyone in the audience believed her.


Panelists:Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver (The Hand that Rocks the Cradle/Rise of The Planet of the Apes), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (From Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete).

The room was packed as these four screenwriter panelists took their seats, and it’s no surprise. Horror is one of the most popular movie genres, translating better to other countries and cultures than other movie genres do. Horror has fans worldwide, and many aspiring screenwriters seek to break into Hollywood by building on familiar horror concepts – and adding a fresh twist to come up with something that audiences haven’t seen before.

Interestingly, the panel started by trying to define the meaning of the word “genre.” They all seemed at a loss with that, so here’s the definition.

Genre: A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content. Taken from the latin root, genus, which in our case would be defined as: a class, group, or kind with common attributes.

Since we’re talking about Horror films here, we must assume the common attribute would be films that scare us, right? That was the next discussion: why do we like films that scare us? Why do people flock to theaters to be scared? The consensus was that the frightening things we see on the screen are always much worse than the fears we carry during our typical day. In this sense, a scary movie is cathartic. We get to scream and release our fears in a safe and mutually supportive environment, and that acts as an emotional release. That’s why people love scary movies.

And what scares us the most? The panel as a whole felt that fear is more profound when based on real or grounded possibilities. A normal day, a normal room and an old lady crawling like a fly on the ceiling sort of thing. It’s creepy. With the supernatural, the panel felt that content is more frightening when the events are grounded in reality. The panel cited the recent movie, Paranormal Events, but personally, that movie bored me, and was only scary during the last five minutes. That’s not structure that works for me, but you get the idea. For me, The Exorcist was much more effective as a supernatural thriller.

Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver spoke at length about how they came up with the idea for Rise of the Planet of the Apes by extrapolating on a character (Cesar) from the original movie Planet of the Apes, and using that character as a protagonist for a prequel story on how the chimps got smart to begin with through laboratory experiments, and how they escaped. They said it was really fun to devise a protagonist that could get an audience cheering for the apes instead of the humans.

Alvaro Rodriguez said he considers his genre (Dusk ’til Dawn/Machete) more exploitation than horror, and said he enjoys writing in that genre because he finds it very freeing. Everything is possible. You can throw everything at it – even the kitchen sink.

Rhett Reese (Zombieland) commented on how his latest is more of a comedy than a zombie movie, and that was what he intended – to make a comedic zombie movie as a way to reinvent the genre. He also cited the convenience of using what has been done before in the sense that nobody has to explain what a vampire or a zombie is before getting into the story, so you can build upon the past, and use it to launch right into your new ideas.

And the last bit of advice to writers trying to break in was one of those that I heard repeatedly throughout the conference and from many panelists.

RULE #1 FOR NEW WRITERS: Make sure that your first effort is a genre you love writing, because if it succeeds, you’ll be riding that genre wave for the next several years of your screenwriting career.


From the movie: Winter's Bone

Pamela Gray (credits as long as your arm with “twenty good scripts gathering dust in my garage,”) was honest and hilarious about writing stories told from a woman’s point of view, as well as seeing them through production. A bit of horror from the trenches launched the room into bursts of laughter over the difficulty in getting a female orgasm shown on the screen – if she’s over 40. Doesn’t matter if that’s the spine. But you had to be there. She shared keen insights on female mythology differing a bit within the classic Hero’s Journey.

Elizabeth Hunter (as in Director of Development for Universal-Apollo 13-Clockers-Crooklyn-Twelve MonkeysJumping The Broom and so very much more) was an elegant foil, with a lot on structure, plus lifting the skirt on writing and producing stories from the ethnic woman’s point of view.

Wish you were there for this powerful duo. Really. Hunter and Gray could take it on the road.

Pamela Gray

  •  The good news is, in 2008, four women were nominated for an Oscar for their original screenplays. That was big news for women. And it’s good to remind yourself of the positives. As often as possible.
  •  Forget all the reasons not to, and write female characters that the best actresses will want to play. (Jim Uhls also advised creating actor-attracting characters as a means to break into Hollywood. We see a pattern, here).

Elizabeth Hunter

  •  Everything starts with structure and story. If you don’t nail that, you’ll be called on it.
  • What stories should you tell? Pay attention to the stories you tell yourself over and over. Those are probably the stories you should tell. Just write the stories that you want to “tell to the world.” Movies told from a female perspectives are all “a story about a woman who…”

Conversation between Hunter & Gray

  • Unfortunate fact, but make sure your female protag, no matter what she’s dealing with or initiating, has a core that’s likable, as in a bad woman but a good mom. Both said if you don’t, you’ll get lots of notes to make your tortured fem “redeemable” and that as within a narrow confine of what execs might see as acceptable. (I guess that’s why, if she’s bad, she better be a hottie – if you want your film to be made).
  • TELEPLAY WRITERS: Take note. Television is friendlier towards a wider variety of interesting, female-driven stories than Hollywood is for film. (Note: If you’ve only written screenplays, you might want to do some reading on the 7-act structures required for accommodating the ad placements in network television. Grittier material would gravitate toward the cable market, without ads, so same 3-act structure as film applies for cable without ads).
  • Both panelists said they often return to reading favorite classic and contemporary feminine-perspective stories as those written by: Georgia Elliot, Emily Bronte, Jane Austin and Toni Morrison. (This is just what I wrote down, and does not reflect the full scope of all they cited as favorite authors).
  •  Structure holds everything together. Both panelists recommended “Writing Screenplays that Sell,” by Hal Ackerman, with Gray swearing by Ackerman’s Scene-o-gram for ensuring structure.

Pamela Gray

For those familiar with the archetypes in storytelling, understand that the Female Protagonist’s classic Hero’s Journey is a bit different than it is when using the same story arc for a male protagonist.

  •  In many aspects, the world itself is more repressing for a woman than it is for a man, so environment is often at least one of the female protag’s Antagonists or Threshold Guardians.
  • In the Call to Adventure, the female protag often says no to “the call” more than once before she finally succumbs and goes on her Journey. Her extra hesitation reads natural. The female protag is often more heavily invested in community and family than the male protag, so she has more at stake in leaving all that behind to pursue her Adventure.
  • The Mentor or Ally is different for women. Often more intimate and unexpected. It can be a friend who, without a clue, chirps in with bulls-eye honest insights. And who is capable of delivering the Betrayal 2nd Act Reversal from the Ally and/or Mentor, which occurs in both the classic Hero’s Journey story arc and in most good screenplay structure. (For the male protag, an example of that moment of betrayal/reversal might be “Obi Wan Kanobi dies without giving Luke the further training and help that he feels he desperately needs).
  • Threshold Guardian (can be antagonist): In a woman’s story, this can also come from intimate sources. It can often be her spouse who challenges her level of commitment (think Norma Rae). You rarely if ever find the spouse playing this role in the male Hero’s Journey.
  • Returning with The Prize and Sharing that with Community. This is the returning home conclusion in the Hero’s Journey story arc. A return home to share what she has learned and won is a very natural action for the Heroine’s Journey protagonist to take. It’s nearly a foregone conclusion.

The panel included an excited announcement about Hunter and Gray ganging up to offer a one-hour long series online entitled: Pitching: Making it Happen. Time on that TBD.

We wait with baited breath, and will share as soon as we know. Until then, may your female protagonists continue to push the envelope on what we expect from a buncha women.


Any lover of film, as well as audiences all over the world, have enjoyed the work of this legendary writer/producer/director. He spoke to a SRO crowd in a stuffy, cramped room; with all of us happy to bear the discomfort in order to hear what he had to say.

Mr. Kasdan’s movie credits include: Body Heat, The Accidental Tourist, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Silverado, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi and The Bodyguard. He fought against a Hollywood system early on (that didn’t and still doesn’t understand the ensemble story) in order to make The Big Chill, a movie that MUST be studied if you want to write a script giving equal weight to every character. He helped George Lucas continue the Star Wars saga to become some of the most successful and influential movies ever made. But I suspect most of us were there out of love and respect for Kasdan’s body of work, and how he has kept alive the flame of art within his work throughout the years. I wish I had taken more notes, but here’s what I did scribble down during his wonderful talk. Make sure you attend his panels if you ever get the chance. His insights are consistently provocative and keen.

  1. Seven Samurai (a film by Akira Kurosawa) is the best movie ever made.

If you are not familiar with the films of Kurosawa, watch them, and watch them all. Kasdan considers this Japanese director to be one of the greatest to ever grace the screen with his work, producing perfect classics. If you really want to write good movies, Kurosawa’s body of work is one you absolutely cannot skip. Kasdan deconstructed some of Kurosawa’s stories and characters to give us examples of how they contain every necessary element for masterful storytelling in film. (One of my personal favorite gangster films is Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well).

  1. There are only three kinds of stories: 1). Someone comes to town. 2). Someone goes on a journey, and 3). Someone comes to town and then goes on a journey. He went on to elucidate with examples from well-known classics, and I’m betting you can look at your own favorites and see how his statement bears true.
  2. When writing an ensemble script, give each character a different, predominant personality trait such as reliability, vanity, courage, confusion, etc., in order to create differentiation and range that equates to a full “team” working together to tell your tale.
  3. Hollywood has cut jobs by 25% in recent years due to the suffering economy, making entry harder than ever. He is also of the opinion that the work coming out of Hollywood isn’t anywhere near as good as it used to be.

Writer’s be warned.


 

 

This panel degenerated into a steaming plate of Hollywood arrogance, but I did manage to wrestle a few gems of wisdom, especially those from Lawrence Kasdan, who kept nudging things back on topic.

 

Below are highlights on advice offered:

 

  •  Use what you know to write what you want. In other words, what you know can bring the stories you want to tell alive with the details of experience. This is good advice for all writers.
  • Hate your day job. This interesting POV from Kasdan was based on how he, like myself, started a writing career in advertising. He hated it (more than I did, apparently. But I’ve had worse jobs), and feels that if you can adapt to and tolerate your day job, it won’t give you the impetus you need to keep writing and trying to break into film. Interesting thought…
  • Define what’s important in your story, and defend that at all costs. Like much of the conversation by this panel, this was off-topic, and does not come into play until you’ve sold a screenplay, but it’s a good point that applies to much more than storytelling. We all have to compromise in life and in work. Defining what you’re not willing to compromise on is a strong foundation on which to stand. The rest, as we all know, is negotiable.
  • Stay relaxed in meetings, and don’t say “no” to notes. Again, not about breaking in but applies once you do. All writers get “notes” from executives on their story once their script is sold. The idea is that you never give a flat-out “no” when getting this feedback, but rather, you should stay relaxed, remember how terrified studio people are about betting on any project and the power the writer really has in the process (I heard of this prevailing fear in several panels), and try to figure out the spirit of the feedback received rather than the exact letter of it. One helpful hint was to make changes that YOU feel addresses the issue/s raised, and present those by prefacing with: “Inspired by your notes, I….” (which I think is rather brilliant).
  • Start your 2nd screenplay before marketing your 1st. Tapping into the excitement and inspiration inherent in a new project can help a writer deal with the ensuing “nos” they’re bound to get when starting out. One writer quipped: “You’ve got to be like the T-1000 in Terminator II, so no matter what happens, you morph back into your original shape.” Cute.
  • D.I.Y. Tremendous revolution in Independent film-making. A writer doesn’t have to go through the jaded Hollywood system anymore. They can shoot it themselves or collaborate with others who want to make films. (Good advice for the highly energetic. But be prepared for the real work this means).
  • Balance your writer’s solitude with community. Self explanatory, right? Otherwise, I think one turns into a sort of troll.
  • Write even when you’re afraid to write. The act alone will lead eventually to a momentary lapse of the fear.     Another gem from Kasdan.

Offering but a smidgeon of interesting tips over the course of a long hour, I did regret the time spent here because there were so many interesting panels I wanted to attend. Yes, consider the WGA a competent and required legal resource for protecting your intellectual property, but if my experience was the norm, don’t expect much from them at conferences.


Of all the sessions I attended during the conference, I have to say that the Creative Roundtables were the most rewarding. Attendees can only sign up for one roundtable, where about twelve panelists sit at various six-chaired tables, speak to conference attendees and answer questions. Time is short, and you change tables three times during the session. Who you sit with is by chance more than choice. I was most fortunate to sit with only five other attendees at a table with Jim Uhls (Fight Club), and Pen Densham (Moll Flanders).

PEN DENSHAM: Founder and Co-Chairman of Trilogy Entertainment Group. Film credits include Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Moll Flanders and Houdini. TV Credits include resurrecting Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Author of “Riding the Alligator” – on writing screenplays and strategies for a career in Hollywood.

A delightfully humble and helpful panelist, Pen shared his early start, from dropping out of high school in the U.K. and moving to Canada where his career start was funded in part by a government program. He also shared his early lack of confidence in his skills, which he eventually overcame. He advised us to write for ourselves; to write the stories we want to tell because, even if they don’t sell, this form of writing nurtures the writer’s creative spirit, and that approach constantly builds the writer’s confidence and skill. He repeatedly reminded us that he only knew his own story, that each writer must find their own path and methods for understanding what works, but he offered what I thought was a sound strategy for approaching the many drafts needed to complete a screenplay:

FIRST DRAFT: “Write crap.” He said the first draft is about exploration. Let yourself off your self-critical hook and just explore your story, whatever comes. The first draft is not about anything but letting the story unfold until you reach Fade Out. Allowing yourself total freedom is critical, according to Pen. Don’t worry about how “good” it is, rather, have fun and play with the possibilities.

SECOND DRAFT: Check for clear “sign posts.” Pen described this as each element logically leading and building to the next in your story. Are the scenes well chosen to move your story forward? Is your story clear? Do all your scenes make sense within the context of the whole story?

THIRD DRAFT: Cut words. Screenplays are what Pen described as “emotional poetry,” which is what all great screenplays must strive to be. Stories that elicit emotion is something I heard again and again at the conference. Must be something to that, huh?

FOURTH DRAFT: Dialogue. Quicken and tighten. Although soliloquies are occasionally found in the movies we love, most dialogue should be honed with an eye toward how it sounds when spoken. Is it natural? Is it abbreviated, like it is when we speak to each other in real life? Is it relevant? Is it “on the nose,” i.e., revealing too much of what the character really wants? Or does it skirt the issue a bit, like most humans do, reluctant to give away everything they are after?

FIFTH DRAFT: Check your descriptions. Pen said our descriptions should never read like laundry lists, but should imply emotion and conjure the readers imagination. Cut the fluff, and “challenge the reader to pay attention.” I thought that was great advice.

One of my favorite panelists at the conference, I’ll be buying Pen’s book and advise all aspiring screenwriters who want to tell powerful, heart-felt stories to do the same.

###

JIM UHLS: Screenwriter (adaptation) Fight Club.

For most film aficionados, the movie Fight Club needs no introduction. In my opinion, it is one of the more important films in recent years, both artistically and socially. The level of craft embodied in the writing, acting and direction (from the Godlike David Fincher) is about as good as Hollywood gets. If you really want to hunker down with this film as a study piece (highly advisable), be sure to watch it with all the fabulous commentary tracks, from which you will learn a great deal.

Jim Uhls spoke at length about writing in general. The one question I wanted answered and asked was: how did you get the job of writing the adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s controversial and ground-breaking novel? His answer was surprising, and one I found most helpful to all aspiring screenwriters.

He said he wrote a spec script that, though never sold, was well-received because it demonstrated his ability to create gritty characters capable of attracting the best actors. According to Uhls,writing a spec script full of characters that actors will fight to play, rather than one geared for more commercial appeal, is one of the best tactics for an unknown writer to get their foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.

Prior to writing the Fight Club script, Jim had never sold a screenplay. How’s that for hitting a career bulls-eye right out of the gate? I am Jack’s bloated envy…


So, you wanna be a screenwriter?

This was my first year to participate in the AFF. First, as a judge for the screenplay competition, a volunteer service for which all judges had to be seriously vetted, as well as recommended by an existing reader/judge. The AFF received a record-setting number of entries this year (a hair under 6000), and over 100 first-round readers worked hard to narrow down the entries for the semi-finalist and finalist judges. Our work entailed reading over 100 screenplays each, and writing coverage notes on 70 of them, explaining why we were sending the work on or why we passed. These notes covered Concept, Plot, Structure, Characters and Dialogue. It was a lot of work! But resulted in an all-access Producer’s Badge, and a more refined understanding of what works – and what doesn’t – in the highly-specific form of screenplay storytelling.

Interestingly enough, the winner of this year’s AFF screenwriting competition also won the highly esteemed and coveted AIF Nichol award! This says a lot about the work of the winner, as well as the quality of the judges here in Austin. 

New articles will cover some panels I attended, offering highlights of what I considered to be the choice gems of wisdom offered by Hollywood icons and newcomers who write, direct and produce for both film and television, such as:

Michael Arndt (The Incredibles/Little Miss Sunshine), Alec Berg (Seinfeld/Curb Your Enthusiasm), Shane Black (Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang/Lethal Weapon), Pen Densham (Moll Flanders/Robin Hood/Twilight Zone), Pamela Gray (Music of the Heart), Elizabeth Hunter (Apollo 13/Twelve Monkeys/Jumping the Broom), Lawrence Kasdan (Body Heat/The Big Chill/Raiders of the Lost Ark, Return of the Jedi), Rhett Reese (Monsters, Inc./Zombieland), Alvaro Rodriguez (Machete), Juliet Snowden (Knowing), Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands/Adams Family/Corpse Bride) and Jim Uhls (Fight Club) – to name just a few of their accomplishments.

What are these professionals saying that might be of interest to aspiring screenwriters? What tips can help a writer navigate and break into this highly competitive and rewarding field? This is the information I look to pass on to you, dear reader, within the articles on this page.

There were so many panels offered that attendees were wishing for clones. Some of the panels I chose were more helpful than others, but overall, the presenters seemed to offer both inspiration and a warning (repeated often): If there is any other work you can do in your life (other than writing for Hollywood) – DO IT! Horror stories abounded about precious screenplays gathering dust in the garage due to one political reason or another, and about the constant fight to preserve the spine of their stories from the malingering influence of studio executives who think they understand storytelling because they know on what page something should occur (structure), and what people will go see in the theater. If you’ve read any of the books written by those indoctrinated into the Hollywood system (and you should if you take a screenwriting career seriously), you know what I’m talking about. If you take your efforts seriously, you should also watch every movie to ever be nominated for an Oscar, and know what/who Film Noir, Werner Herzog, Fellini and Kurosawa are – a lacking I noticed in many of the younger conference attendees.

It has been my experience that any and all creative souls will struggle with ignorance and resistance regardless of the medium they pursue. So I offer the other repeated message from the panelists: If this is what you really want to do – DON’T EVER GIVE UP! Keep pushing and writing until something breaks open. It takes fierce determination to succeed as a screenwriter, and a willingness to keep learning and to cultivate the ability to brush off insults, resistance and a myriad of other dream-killers, including self-doubt. If you’re still interested; if you want to write movies no matter what anyone says, well, okay then.


As a writer, how do I give you more than just information? How do I break through this real and imagined ethereal wall that separates my mind and your own, here on the tangible page? How do I keep you engaged, oh precious reader? ANSWER: Through making conscious choices while crafting a “LIVING” tale that dares to touch you.

Letters and words are naught but symbols we’re in agreement on, at least within general parameters. Yet language is a living thing that adapts to the times as all else that lives. Language flows from one generation to the next, with each decade of teens and change in technology adding its “two cents.” Language is alive and malleable. It even has the rhythm of Breath and Pulse – and a Reason, when done right. Respect this living Being that you use to write your prose, but do let it be your friend. Put on your 3-D specs, then sit and breathe together. Hang out a little.

The magic of a story comes from the Art of Choice with the language practiced by the teller. There are countless ways to say things. What words will you use? Will you challenge yourself to say more? I think of a Joni Mitchell lyric that was so artful: “I met a woman, she had a mouth like yours, she knew your life, she knew the devil in your deeds.” So much better than “I met your mother.” Artful choices. How will your tale unfold and present itself? Yes, that’s structure. Is your tale so well-built that if you saw it walking down the street you would ask it on a date? Be careful now – writing fiction is Quixotic stuff, the Sorcerers Apprentice. You must both encourage exploration and keep a keen eye out for trouble!

Self-Editing Your Prose

Please, never send a first draft of anything you write to anyone other than a collaborator. Nobody’s that good. (The editor in me needed to get that out of the way. Thanks).

Your second and third drafts might still be about structure, which is absolutely foundational, so do whatever it takes to nail that. But if you’re on the draft where you’re scrutinizing your prose, this is the time to remember the rhythm, the pulse, the life and breath of your story like someone sitting at your table asking you to pass the salt. THAT is your narrator, the real teller of the tale. It might be your protagonist or other character, or perhaps a defined Aspect of your Omniscient orator. (Oh, yes; if God is telling your tale, you should know how it feels to hang out with the god of your making). If all-seeing eyes peer into your characters and read their very thoughts and feelings, and expose their souls, what sort of Omniscient being do you imagine that to be? Are They holy, ephemeral and wise, or disinterested and vengeful? Or do They appreciate the comedic side of human reality; with a big cigar and feet propped on a cloud? 3-D specs, remember. Approach your story as a living, breathing being. Do your sentences and the words you’ve chosen reflect that essence?

When it comes to debuting authors getting their fiction published, the competition is much more than fierce. Learning to become artful in your languaging and word choices is the deep level of self-editing that can turn aspiring writers into published authors. Plus, it’s how all storytellers develop the means to sneak through that “wall” in order to tap readers on the shoulder and nibble their ear.

Now, that didn’t hurt, did it?

 

 

 

 


When your manuscript is complete, and your book proposal is at least in your first draft stage, you are ready to seek representation with query letters to agents. It’s a strange fact that, although many writers may be masterful in their prose, when writing a query letter, they face the blank page with trepidation. After all, it’s one thing to devise interesting characters and make them move through the world you’ve created, and to surrender to your own creative process, but it’s altogether different trying to speak of yourself and your work with clarity, brevity and in such a compelling manner that an agent immediately picks up their phone to call you. Yet this is exactly what you must do if you want to stand out from the slush pile. Your query letter is your first point of contact and should reflect your uniqueness and your craft, as well as respect for the reader’s time.

My background as a writer includes over a decade of working as a copywriter in ad agencies. The training a writer gets in this sort of milieu is to convey ideas quickly – and in a memorable way. The same approach is effective for writing query letters. Below are a few tips to help you craft the most effective queries:

  1. Start Out with a BangThis is where you grab your reader by the shirt – and don’t let go. What is the most compelling, quirky or inspirational aspect of your story? Define that idea into a sentence or two and open your query with it. Agents have to wade through hundreds of queries a week; you have only a few seconds to make them read all the way through. Don’t waste that. In addition, defining your story in such a clear, concise way will serve you down the road when you pitch your story to anyone who might be of help to your writing career. This could include filmmakers, who are used to such pitches, and refer to these as “log lines.”
  2. Why You?Let the reader know why you are the person to tell your story. We all find inspiration and are motivated by events in our lives. Use this to give the reader a sense of your unique insights or qualifications.
  3. Other Book ProjectsLike all of us, agents are limited in the time and energy they can devote to their clients. They must choose them carefully. For this reason, they are more inclined to work with writers who have several books in them. Mention yours here. They may not be drawn to your current project, but if you’ve crafted your letter well and they are still reading, here is your chance to pitch any other project you have completed or are working on. This serves the dual purpose of showing them your ongoing devotion to your craft, as well as pitching alternative projects. Remember: only a line or two.
  4. Why this Agent or Agency?Show the reader you’ve done your research. Mention any authors you share in common, especially if you have any personal connection. Mention books they’ve published recently (that have done well), that you can cite as reasons for wanting this particular agent.
  5. Writing Awards or RecognitionsEnd with these, as though they are an afterthought. Humility goes a long way.
  6. Ask Them to Contact YouIn advertising this is called a “call to action” – and yields a significantly higher response than ads run without it. You’ve gotten this far, so don’t be shy. Thank them for their time, and tell them you would be thrilled to talk to them further – and to call anytime.

Once you’ve completed this, edit your query for brevity. It’s critical that your query delivers the necessary information quickly and in an engaging manner, so don’t run on too long with any of your points.

Taking the time to compose solid, professional queries is well worth the effort, and doesn’t take nearly as long as it took you to complete your manuscript. Put your best verse forward, let your personality shine through and you’ll be rewarded with enthusiastic responses. Of course, there are myriad reasons why you might receive some standard “thanks but no thanks” responses, and this does not necessarily reflect on your work or your query. But if you compose your query letters in the manner described above, your chances of finding the right agent will be greatly enhanced.

August 2017
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Brooke Monfort - Find me on Bloggers.com