Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Writing adaptations for practice?

Rachel writes: What are your thoughts on working on screenplays that are adaptations of novels or other works? I am an aspiring writer myself and for some reason I really would like to try to adapt a screenplay. I wouldn't plan on sending it out to really is more for me to practice writing. Is this a good idea for me to do? Or should I try and come up with my own ideas?

In one of my college screenwriting classes, we were assigned the task of adapting short stories into a short film scripts. We didn't own the rights or option the stories or anything - but like you said, it was just for practice. I think for people who only have experience writing prose (which is how most of us begin, I would think), it can be a good exercise in thinking about the differences between screenwriting and prose, and the restrictions and opportunities of the screen. So I think that if you want to tackle an adaptation as practice, go for it. One of my favorite quotes about writing is from Lost's Damon Lindelof, who maintains that you must write a LOT of bad or "practice" scripts before you start writing great scripts: "I got hired as a professional writer for the first time when I was 28 or 29, and I literally have thousands of pages of s***," he says. "A lot of people aren't willing to write s***, or they write two pages of s*** and then they stop. You have to plow through it."

The caveat here is that you have to accept that this script can only be practice because you don't own the rights to the material. If you want to be able to send it to people to launch your writing career, you need to work on an original idea. John August has blogged a lot about adaptations, so I would check out this post and some of his others on the subject.

Also...should you try to come up with your own ideas? Yes! All writers will need original ideas to work on at some point. You can start with the person, the situation, the conflict, the setting, the theme, or anything really. What interests you? What do you want to find out more about?

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"Send me a spec" and the following panic

Ryan writes: I met a TV development guy over the weekend who gave me his card and said, "Send me a spec." On top of the script I'm planning on a very short, single paragraph cover letter, but do you think a résumé or the like is worthwhile? Also, despite the increased popularity of getting work based on pilots, should I take his "spec" comment to literally mean he wants a spec of something on the air?

Do not send a cover letter. Maybe this is what you meant, but you should just send a simple email, something like "Great meeting you this weekend! I hope you survived rainpocalypse 2010. As discussed, here's my spec of HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER. Looking forward to your thoughts!" Definitely do not send a resume unless he talked about helping you get a writers' assistant job or something. He wants to find out about your writing, not about your random odd jobs.

The spec versus pilot thing is a little tougher. I would follow his advice and send a spec since that's what he asked for. But if you have written a pilot you're really proud of, I don't see any problem with saying something about it in the email. Something like: "If you're interested, I also have an original pilot about robots who get lonely after killing off the human race." See if the logline makes him bite.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Getting admin experience when all jobs require admin experience

Liz writes: For the past few months I've come so close to getting kick ass assistant jobs only to be passed over in favor of those with more "administrative experience." I've been told by two different HR reps that I would have gotten said jobs if I just had more assistant/admin work on my resume.

Does admin work mean "assistant" work? It seems like such a catch 22 that you need administrative experience to get an assistant position, but the only way to get administrative experience is by working as an assistant.

I understand your frustration, since I went through the exact same thing a few years ago. Yes, admin experience and assistant work are basically the same thing: answering phones, scheduling meetings, keeping an executive's calendar, making copies, organizing files, generating correspondence, etc. It's not difficult work and can be learned very quickly, but many bosses want to hire assistants who already have experience doing these things. Many Hollywood assistant jobs are not entry level.

One thing you can do is try to get a job that's a bit lower on the food chain, like office PA, receptionist, mailroom, intern, etc. Sometimes in these jobs, you'll get to do assistant and admin-type work some of the time, so you'll gradually get more experience. I actually started in the mailroom, and then I got to train to be a floater (someone who fills in for assistants when they're out sick). After that, I was deemed ready to jump into an assistant job at the agency.

You could also see if you could gain some admin experience in a less-snooty office outside of Hollywood. I had one agency HR guy tell me I should go get a job at a doctor's office or something for a few months and then give him a call. That didn't end up being necessary for me, but I could see how it wouldn't be the worst move if you can't seem to find a Hollywood job.

However, many people start right off as assistants without any experience. This usually happens when you A) have a strong connection to get the job, B) find a boss willing to hire you despite how green you are, and C) convince the person interviewing you that you can handle it. I do think you have to be confident in interviews. Rather than emphasizing how you've never been an assistant before, highlight the fact that you're a hard worker and a fast learner. You don't have to lie, just present yourself in the right way. You want to assure them you can do the job - because trust me, I'm sure you can.

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Monday, December 13, 2010

The 2010 Black List is here!

Writers rejoice...the 2010 Black List has arrived! Here are the top 10 screenplays, via the LA Times:

2. JACKIE by Noah Oppenheim
3. ALL YOU NEED IS KILL by Dante Harper
4. SAFE HOUSE by David Guggenheim
5. STOKER by Wentworth Miller
6. 999 by Matt Cook
7. MARGIN CALL by J.C. Chandor
8. AMERICAN BULL by Eric Warren Singer
9. ARGO by Chris Terrio

The entire list will be posted on the LA Times blog 24 Frames and the official Black List site later today. Congrats to all recognized writers!

For more on the Black List, check out this cool KCRW podcast with creator Franklin Leonard.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Finding a mentor

Sam writes: How do you go about finding a mentor and asking someone to help you through multiple drafts/multiple projects?

Ask any successful writers how they got to where they are, and the answer usually involves someone who took the time to offer guidance and support. It could be a producer, director, executive, or another writer - but mentors are constantly helping new writers improve their work and navigate the industry. I've been lucky enough to find a mentor who has taken an interest in my writing in this way.

Lots of people will help you on your path to becoming a professional writer, whether it's forwarding your resume on for a job or giving you notes on your script. But the thing is, not everyone wants to be a mentor. Some people really enjoy helping young writers develop their talent - and some don't. You can't force it to happen. Also, professional writers can be really busy. Don't take it as a personal slight if someone isn't able to help you.

In my experience, a mentor/mentee relationship is most likely develop if the A) the person really does want to be a mentor, B) s/he thinks you are a talented writer with a lot of potential, C) you both share the same taste, and D) you've bonded on a personal level. You might meet the friendliest writer in the world, but if she writes romantic comedies, she's probably not the right person to guide you through four drafts of a horror movie. In a recent draft of my script, my mentor wrote down a joke pitch before flipping the page and seeing that I had written the exact same joke already. We obviously have similar brains.

I'm not sure it's really possible to actively seek out a mentor - and I think it would be awkward to ask a writer to be one. You just have to keep meeting people and see if anything clicks (in my case, it happened organically). Also, Sam's question about multiple drafts and projects might be a lofty idea. I would aim for finding someone to offer to read just one draft of one script - and then see what develops. Maybe you'll get some great notes. Maybe you'll get passed onto an agent or manager. Maybe you'll get a mentor. Any of those things would be helpful.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

A screenwriting fellowship?

Sarah wrote in to share the Cinestory Screenwriting Awards, which offer over 20k in prizes and a "one-year fellowship with two industry mentors." There are a few fellowship programs for TV writers (like those from ABC/Disney and Nickelodeon), but I haven't yet seen anything for features, so this is pretty cool. Generally, I'm wary of contests since they often lack professional industry connections, but if you look at the list of former mentors, this one may be the exception.

Any writer without produced feature film credits may enter, as long as his/her entered script has not been previously optioned, sold or produced. The regular deadline is Dec 31 and the entry fee is $55.

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

A call for questions/ideas

I'm glad so many people got fired up about yesterday's post! I know I haven't been blogging a lot lately, but I honestly feel like I'm a little out of things to say.

For any new readers: I'm a former agency assistant who now works as a reader, blogger and tutor while working on TV and film scripts. The aim of this blog is to answer the question, what do you do between college and getting paid as a professional screenwriter? Things like...How do you get an internship? What kind of jobs are helpful? Etc. I try to stay away from writing advice or bashing bad movies or shows, since I know I don't really have the authority to write about those things yet. But I am happy to share anything I find helpful in my own writing, and sometimes, like yesterday, I have to rant about things I've found while reading scripts for coverage.

I encourage you to browse the labels to the right of this page to read old posts about agencies, networking, etc. - but if you can't find the answer to your question, or if you want to start up a discussion about something, feel free to email, comment or Tweet me.

I also offer a cheap notes service if you're looking for feedback on your script.

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Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Male screenwriter fantasy

Sometimes when I'm reading a script for coverage, I want to grab a red sharpie and scrawl MALE SCREENWRITER FANTASY across the title page before tossing it into the trash. What I mean by MSF is that instead of writing real, well-developed, multi-dimensional women, male screenwriters sometimes write a woman they wish existed. This often manifests itself in overt sexuality, like the "ample cleavage" cliche that The Bitter Script Reader has blogged about.

Some examples of MSF:
1. All the women in your script sleep with (or attempt to sleep with) your male protagonist, even though he is an average-looking slacker with no job, purpose or attractive qualities.
2. Your physical descriptions of female characters are all highly sexualized, even if the characters are only in one scene and we never see any of their sex lives. Do we really need to know that FEMALE COP #1 has a great rack? (This especially bugs me because I bet you don't get into this kind of detail with your male characters.) Describing them as attractive is fine; I know that actors want to play attractive people. It's the over-sexualization that's problematic.
3. Sex scenes are graphic and/or numerous, even though they have nothing to do with the plot.
4. Women are completely helpless and need your male characters to save them from everything.

To be fair, I'm sure there is plenty of Female Screenwriter Fantasy out there...maybe I just don't see as much of it since male screenwriters still outnumber female ones in Hollywood. I admit that I've been guilty of writing male characters who would fit my own fantasies by being too perfect. For me, they're usually thoughtful, handsome, charming, brilliant, hilarious, employed guys who actively pursue their goals. (Somehow I think that's less offensive than misogyny, but I'm working on it nonetheless.) Writing about fantasies isn't always a bad thing, since wish fulfillment is part of a lot of great movies. But like great villains, all great characters - love interests, sidekicks, cops we see for ten seconds - should be the heroes of their own stories, not just the fantasies of writers.

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