Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Notes From Wilderness: Getting Notes

I'll skip right past the whole, writing the screenplay business because that's such an insignificant part of the process...

After you've got the draft to the point where you can't see what's wrong with it anymore, it's time to send it out for notes. This is not an optional part of the process.

Feedback Exchanges: I've gotten fairly solid notes from Helium Feedback's service. I recommend actually shelling out some bucks for the service -- since people are more professional when there's money at stake and they're held accountable for their performance. Also, since the prices are typically much cheaper than other places, you might want to dive straight in and get two sets of notes. These are, by and large, schlubs just like us, but by getting feedback from multiple people you can see if there's a trend.

Another important note: check to see what genres the various readers work in and, all else bein' equal, choose the ones that have done some writing in your genre. This is, I think, a great failing of writer's groups, many reading services, and even production companies.

For instance, with horror everyone thinks they know good horror even if what they really go out of their way to watch is nihilistic documentaries but they happened to like Alien. Everyone liked Alien -- but only after Aliens came along and made Ripley cool. I liked When Harry Met Sally but you sure as hell don't want me giving you advice on romantic comedies. My tastes in comedy are neither commercial, nor critically refined. So unless you think Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle was the best comedic film of the past 2-3 years don't ask me for advice on your comedy script.

Online Services: I've used ScriptPIMP multiple times and gotten generally good advice. Often the notes will point you toward some key weaknesses -- but you don't have any control over the reader and so, depending on the genre of your work, you might get advice that pushes away from what would actually be best for your kind of film. If you're still learning the format and structure this won't matter much, but it can undermine the value if you're looking for broader notes on how well the story works.

I imagine other online services will offer similar experiences.

Your own producer contacts, people who've responded with a nice, albeit brief, personal note to your previous submissions can be the best source of advice. Ask for their quick take on your project -- even a few sentences can point you at the big problems in the script and these are really the key things to worry about: is the second act bogging, are they getting a feel for the core characters, and so on. In fact, the one paragraph response where I have to figure out all the particular details has typically been the most beneficial for me.

The downside to this is that you can't get their notes before you show them the script--so the one you'll have after their e-mail will always be the one you'd rather you sent to them. Damn that arrow of time! That said, I suspect that if your screenplay didn't score an option without the notes, then even the improved version wouldn't have scored an option (at least with that reader) -- because concept is king.

BTW -- one way to help cultivate these contacts is to follow-up after you get a read. Just drop quick notes 4-8 weeks after sending the actual script checking in and asking if they have any thoughts. Some of the readers will pass but indicate they thought the writing had potential, and they're the ones who can often give you the handful of thoughts that can lead to you ripping out pages 25-80 and making the movie much better.

Again -- these people come last, since you ideally want to sell the thing to them. Also, do like the managers do and send your script out in waves, one or two producers at first, then get the notes and send to a couple others, and so on. If you have several scripts you're developing this way you also get this nice little feeling of constant activity -- the new one going out small, an older one going out wide, and you working on something else entirely. That helps you avoid the waiting psychosis.

Posting The First 5-10 Pages for Feedback
How does that painting up at the top look? Man, I'd spend hundreds of millions of dollars on that... The first 5-10 pages are sufficient to tell you if the writer stinks, but without the context of the story as a whole they don't do much and any feedback you'll get will be mostly worthless.

Those are the only methods I've used. Here are some I've heard about:

Reading groups are available in most places of decent size or remotely near a university but I'm always wary of getting in there with a bunch of people wanting to talk about the spiritual awakening they experience through the act of writing. If I had a spiritual awakening writing the kind of stuff I do, then someone better call the police...

Trading with other writers over the internet -- I haven't had a chance to do this, but it strikes me as possibly being the best option. Again though, I think it'd be best to make sure you're working with people who have real and extensive experience in your chosen genre.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Notes From Wilderness

I figured I'd contribute to the screenwriting blog-space with my one bit of experience -- trying to break in from the Wilderness. I'll spread this out and update if anything new or moderately interesting occurs.

First, about the Wilderness
Anything outside of unreasonable driving distance to Los Angeles counts as wilderness. Barstow and even Baker don't count, since you could make an afternoon meeting if called by someone capable of getting you work. For some of my friends, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Sacramento doesn't count...

Pretty much every other cubic centimeter of the universe does count as Wilderness.

My guess is that the reason for this largely --maybe solely -- stems from your ability to easily get in a room or at a lunch table with the people who might possibly contemplate working with you. These are the people who will later decide who to hire for re-writes and assignments, the most common sort of job -- and they'll go after people with whom they feel comfortable.

In this interview (you might need a subscription for that link, I'm afraid), producer Lawrence Turman says the following:

I only work with a writer face to face. There have been rare occasions where the writer lives far away and I will annotate a script in great detail as to my thoughts, after which we will have a telephone conversation to clarify any particular point. But I want to see the whites of his eyes and he mine so we can really engage in the most productive, creative partnership.

Of course, you can make it from outside L.A. but the real concern for us out here, living amongst the, um, wild deer, armadillos, and road runners, is how much harder does it make it?

I suspect it makes it significantly more challenging to get representation prior to a sale or big contest win, which means that you won't have a manager's or agent's connections to help get your spec screenplays read.

But at the just writing spec screenplays stage, and the early stages of sending them out, I don't think it's much worse. After all, our early stuff will stink anyway and we just need to get that phase out of the way.

I'll continue on with this, in particular, going over each phase of the process, but right now I collected up some other pages that talk about the chances of making it from the outside. If anyone has more links please drop a comment and I'll edit this post to include them.

The Out of Towners -- The Thinking Writer

Moving to Hollywood -- John August

More LA Relocating -- John August

I Love LA -- Wordplay

Living Outside Los Angeles -- What Are The Chances? -- Done Deal Message Board

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Byte: The Ragged Cat

One of the cats in our neighborhood, Byte (name discovered by Gary, who cleverly looked at the ID tag), has a voice usually reserved for those who've managed to puff down 40 unfiltered Camels a day for thirty years.

And, with a voice like that, I figured I should record it, digitize it, and put it on the internet as soon as possible because, quite frankly, wasn't sure how much time there'd be left. Here's a link to an MP3 of Byte chatting at us:

Byte's Melodic Meow

In addition to her charming meow, Byte drools -- she's the most drooliest cat I've ever seen -- even out-drooling many dogs. Though it's less drooly and more liquidy -- she just keeps up a constant drip of saliva, and when she shakes her head there's this little spray of water droplets.

Normal cats and even screwed up little beasts like Byte don't just sit there and meow at your pleasure. You have to follow them around for a while with a recording device -- try out your cat-ese on them, and watch as they silently rub their cheeks against the handheld recorder's microphone.

So, to get the four minutes or so of recording down to a reasonable length (and keep the action hopping!!) I used this very nice freeware sound editing software, Audacity. It'll even export to MP3, wihch creates much smaller files than WAVs.

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Our apartment has a half-size stove/oven in it -- as you might be able to make out in the picture it's slightly less than two chopsticks wide (these are authentic chopsticks, not that chintz you get at Panda Express).

It works well enough, so long as you only cook two things at once, or four really small things. Again, as you can see -- the Wok is the exception to the two thing rule, unless your second item is the one can of soup at a time pot.

The oven also works fine -- in fact, too fine. Similar to the bus in the movie, Speed, it cannot cook below 450 degrees. Below that temperature the flames just flicker out. For baked potatoes, pot roasts, and chicken pot pies that's fine. But cakes, cupcakes, and brownies always burn.

So I tried a new trick tonight. Turn on the oven to the full 450, pop in the cook at 325-350 cupcakes, then leave the oven partially open. Of course this warms up the apartment in our 71F 91% humidity weather here in November Texas -- so I also have to run the AC.

My next oven will probably be bloated, make only tepid water, and star less interesting food.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

A Victory for Intelligent Education?

Voters on Tuesday ousted a Pennsylvania local school board that promoted an "intelligent-design" alternative to teaching evolution, and elected a new slate of candidates who promised to remove the concept from science classes. -- from Yahoo! News

Apparently once people find out what their board of education is up to, non-theories (but interesting philosophical arguments) don't do so well. One thing that worries me though is this bit from later in the article:

The challengers also criticized what they called arrogance and secrecy by the incumbent board.

The voters might not be bothered so much by the content of the science classes, as by the fact that those snooty board members never invite the voters to their parties.

Don't Be Boring

One of my junior high teachers had this advice for the young men getting ready to date:

Whatever you do, don't be boring.

I rented a couple films recently -- the relatively famous (or notorious) Old Boy, which was cool and disturbing. Since it's relatively famous I won't say any more.

And the somewhat less famous Necropolis Awakened. My video store has an excellent selection.

Necropolis Awakened was made for something like $7000, or so I read, and the cast consists almost entirely of this one family.

The dad plays two parts (that's him doing the hand above) -- but I didn't realise that until after I finished watching and looked it up an IMDB. He plays both of them, um, with gusto -- so wildly overdrawn that they develop an insane believability; I served with a couple guys in the Army like this.

The film-makers also do remarkable work with what they have -- actors can all play multiple parts since anyone can be a zombie by tossing on some fake blood and gore. Even the car chases work to an extent, emphasizing engine sound to help give a feel of speed.

Finally, I liked the mishmash of story -- zombies hire gangsters to take out crazy hermit (with the hand) then hermit goes all Mad Max and cleans up the town.

I watch a fair number of often forgettable low to high budget horror films -- this is one I'll remember.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Congrats to Expo 4 Finalists

Congratulations to the people who advanced to the final rounds of the Screenwriting Expo 4 Screenwriting Contest.

My script only got up to the quarter finals but I'll be mentioning that when I send out query letters -- so we'll see if that helps it garner any extra reads.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

My Exploding Computer

This Safely Remove Hardware icon has been sitting in my -- what is it? button tray? Lower right button tray? Anyway, I've highlighted it in the above image -- normally it looks more innocuous.

It's been making me nervous lately -- like if I accidentally press it, then my computer will start ejecting components. I have this image of hard drives and audio cards spitting across the room and impaling me or the cat.

What's worse, it inspires in me a kind of Sartrean anguish that I might suddenly exercise my perfect freedom and make my computer self-destruct.

Better back up the files again...