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My Thoughts on Those Reader Comments

If you’re in the screenwriting know, you know which particular set of reader comments I’m referring to.  It’s this set:

“It’s great to see a group of four women friends take on the sophistication level of THE HANGOVER. Seriously, the gals here drink a bunch and have a lot of fun, but there is not nearly enough density to carry the piece. There is a big secret that has spoiled the friendship between two of the gals, and it turns out that the slutty one slept with the fiancee of the one who is getting divorced. Wow, quite the reveal.
The prose maintains a brisk pace, though often at the expense of any great detail. It is conversational in tone, and we instantly understand who these people are and what we are dealing with, not that that is saying alot. The vocabulary utilized is not particuarly stylish – rather, it can best be described as casually utilitarian.
There is some fun banter, especially at the outset of the story. The four freinds are distinct, and they emerge as real people over the course of the screenplay. That said, there is not a helluva lot of insight into la condition humane here – people get jealous when their mates are unfaithful. Got it.
When it is drunk, which is often, this script might believe that it compares with BRIDESMAIDS, but in the sober light of day, this is much more simplistic. The drunken conversations in the college bars go on for days, with no plot advancement taking place.
With some judicious alterations, it might make a decent porn picture, as the gals do seem kinda hot, at least on the page.”

Most people’s reactions jump to the final line of comments, but I’m going to skip over that for now because a) it’s been beaten like a dead horse and b) I have some other thoughts I’d like to address.

Some people also focus on the use of the phrase “the slutty one.”  I don’t feel like I could possibly have issue with that, as I don’t know if the character was originally written as “the slutty one” in the script.

The issue I have is with the sarcasm.  I can’t understand for the life of me why a reader would utilize sarcasm in their feedback/comments/notes.  It would seem to indicate to me that if you’re using sarcasm even within this realm that there’s no realm of life in which you do NOT use sarcasm.  To me, that’s worrisome.  It raises questions in my mind about the reader.  Major questions.

But, beyond that… anyone that’s attempted to utilize sarcasm in typed form (such as on the internet or in comments like these) has probably figured out that sarcasm can be lost in translation.  The intent can be confused, as tone, inflection and verbal cues are unavailable.  Now, given that knowledge, it seems like a horrible choice to use sarcasm in reader comments (which are supposed to HELP the writer).

It seems apparent to me (and others) that “Wow, quite the reveal” is sarcastic.  I can’t help but wonder why the reader couldn’t say, “I found the reveal predictable or cliche.”  Instead, they seemed to feel the need to mock the writer.  (That’s what sarcasm does, by the way, it mocks people.)

Such as when the reader says “not that that is saying a lot” referring to understanding the people and circumstances.

Later, the reader says:

“That said, there is not a helluva lot of insight into la condition humane here – people get jealous when their mates are unfaithful. Got it.”

This reads to me like an insecure person who wants to appear smart by inserting a French phrase into their reader comments.  Got it?

Of course, the whole use of sarcasm within the comments reads similarly.  The only reason I can think of for someone to use sarcasm in their comments is to sound clever.  Of course, this isn’t the time or place.  Comments are supposed to be helpful to the writer; they are not intended to boost the reader’s ego.  It seems to me the reader doesn’t understand this.  Furthermore, I’m not even sure if the reader understands what they’re doing a la condition humaine (see what I did there?  I even spelled it correctly, unlike the reader).

I initially read these comments two days ago, and since gave myself time to process them.  As I re-read them again, I’m a little bit floored upon reading:

“When it is drunk, which is often, this script might believe that it compares with BRIDESMAIDS, but in the sober light of day, this is much more simplistic.”

I can understand how someone doesn’t take much umbrage with that line.  In that case, I’ll offer my own analysis, of the reader, in a similar vein:

‘When the reader is drunk, which is often, the reader might believe their comments compare with the best French critics, but in the sober light of day, the reader is much more simplistic.’

Whether you want to hide behind sarcasm or supposed wit, the truth of the matter is the approach is more interested in taking jabs than anything else.

But, here’s the thing, when you mix sarcasm and non-sarcasm in written form, it can, at times, be hard to tell the difference.  In other words, you create a set of comments that is unclear, when clarity should be the main goal.

Let’s return to the opening statement:

“It’s great to see a group of four women friends take on the sophistication level of THE HANGOVER.”

I think the reader has properly assessed what the writer is aiming for, as in the “sophistication level of THE HANGOVER.”  But, in the process I assume the reader is using the word “great” sarcastically.  It’s hard to be fully sure, just reading the line by itself, because if that’s the only line you’ve read the commenter could very well think it is great (after all, the Hangover did awesome financially, and became a franchise.)  But, I think the “seriously” starting the next line and other clues throughout the comments belie the sarcasm.  So, if you’re saying that sarcastically, what are you really saying?

You think it’s bad that the writer’s written a raunchy comedy?  Then, why are you reading it?  Why didn’t you give this back to Nicholl ASAP, and say, “sorry, this isn’t my style.”  But, it IS your style, if your comments are any indication.  So, I’m lost.

But, you know that little investigation I had to go through with your use of the word “great”?  When you inter-sperse sarcasm in your reader comments the writer has to go through an investigation to glean anything useful from what you’re saying.  The writer has to determine which parts are sarcasm and which parts are not.  This is highly unhelpful.

Reader, you may think you’re God’s gift to writing, and so you can write whatever you want in your notes and people will magically love it, but that’s not the case, sorry.  Please try to be helpful next time.  And leave your attempts at cleverness at the door.

They’ve obviously backfired.  (This is where I refrained from a porn joke, and am mentioning it as a teaching moment, dear reader.)

Thanks for reading.

On Feedback (Or Not)

In preparation for the 2014 Nicholl Fellowship competition, I shut off all the external screenwriting voices.  Blogs, forums, articles, my screenwriting group and feedback.  Yes, feedback.  What was I doing?  I was encapsulating myself in my own little screenwriting bubble.  Why?  Because I was unhappy with where I was on my quest to become a professional screenwriter.  Not only that, it seemed I’d gone backwards.  It felt that way.  And with regard to the Nicholl, I had.  I’d previously placed in the Top 20% of the competition.  But, not in 2013.

Prior to entering the 2013 Nicholl, the feedback I’d received for one of my entries was glowing.  Stellar.  They loved it.  That was more of an indictment on my screenwriting group than anything else.  I don’t live in L.A.  And if you don’t live in L.A. (or some other hub of serious aspiring screenwriters) beware of your screenwriting group.  It may merely contain hobbyists or dreamers.  It may be completely bereft of people who are actually willing to sacrifice to become a professional screenwriter.  Okay, that tangent’s over; back to my story.

It was 2013 and I decided to encapsulate myself in my own personal screenwriting bubble.  I thought.  I wrote.  I combined some seemingly disparate ideas.  I laughed.  I cried.  I wrote it all down.  I questioned my choices.  I questioned my screenwriting choices.  Structure, character, tone.  Can I open my screenplay this way?  What about my tonal shifts?  Question, question, question.  But, all within.  I couldn’t rely on some self-professed guru, some screenwriting dreamer who’s unwilling to sacrifice, or anyone else.  I need all the voices out.  This was about me and what I could do.  After all, if I ever became a professional screenwriter I would need to properly assess my own work with a precise, critical eye.

I flogged my screenplay into shape.  I was inspired.  At times, the process felt magical.  Emotions soared.  Up and down.  But, in the down times, I’d come to learn that it was darkest before the dawn.  I tried to remind myself of that, when it was dark.

I wrote the final 20 pages before the 20 or 30 pages that directly preceded it.  Because I knew the ending would be a whirlwind and I didn’t really know how many pages it would end up being.  That approach worked.  Of course, I didn’t endeavor to write those final 20 until I already had the first 60-80 on paper.  My instinct told me I needed to jump forward at that point in the process.  My instinct.  It’s not something you can explain to someone; you can only earn it.  Through experience.

Anyway, I loved what I had.  Put it aside for a week, maybe two.  Returned to it.  Brushed it up.  Polished and tweaked it.  All the feedback was my won.  No one else even read any of it.  It all resided in the vault of my mind.  And I was growing happier and happier about it.

And then one day, I submitted it to the 2014 Nicholl Fellowship competition.  I knew it was great.  It wasn’t perfect.  I attained what I strived to attain.

And, then I was scared.  How do I top this?  I knew this was the best screenplay I’d ever written.  I loved it and not in a naive, ‘this is my 1st or 2nd screenplay’ kind of way.  This was something special.  It felt magical.  Mystical.

When I say it felt magical, I’m not being hyperbolic.  So, the question becomes, “how do you get the magic to return?”  How can I possibly top this?

I seriously thought it could make waves in the Nicholl.

It placed in the Top 15%.  I placed higher than I ever placed, and I was devastated.

I already thought it was a magical piece, nearing perfection.  I knew now I needed feedback, because I didn’t know what else to do with it.

I acquired a few sets of feedback from various places.  One being that year’s Nicholl – the first and only year you could earn feedback (by being one of the screenplays garnering a 3rd read).

I need to backtrack.  I didn’t just set out to acquire feedback.  I put the screenplay on the blacklist with the intention of it scoring well enough to garner exposure.  I was underwhelmed.  But, it came with feedback.

As I accumulated feedback, I created a new version of the screenplay.  One day, after writing a totally new opening, I stopped.  It sucked.  Not the writing.  What I was doing.  I wasn’t passionate about it.  Everything I initially intended was falling out the window.

I stopped.  Dead in my tracks.

It was a couple months before I returned to it.  I guess I tried to convince myself to make certain changes.  Some bastardized, Frankenstein version of what I’d intended and what feedback told me.  There were some tweaks I liked.  But, I totally abandoned some of my philosophies for the screenplay.  But, it seemed to work.  Or maybe I was trying to convince myself it worked.  I don’t know.

I entered it into the 2015 Nicholl.

Not in the Top 20%.

So, you ask me what I think about feedback?

Feedback matters from people who are paying you and/or making your movie.  Otherwise… well…

My next version of that screenplay will be closer to my 2014 version than my 2015 version.

And I will believe in it more.

I will have more passion for it.

I will (and this is highly necessary) be able to live with it.  Through development.  Through the long process of it becoming a movie.

Now, I just need to figure out who’s gonna make it.

That’s all.

P.S. It still stands that the best I’ve ever finished in the Nicholl is with a screenplay that no one else ever gave me feedback on.

Now Playing on the Typing Keys and Ink Quills

As if I use ink quills to write a screenplay.  Ohhh, now I want to.  I want to try that.  Wouldn’t that be amazeballs!  If you wrote a final draft of a screenplay in caligraphic ink quill and gave it to someone like that?  They’d have to be impressed.  Or, think you’re off your rocker.  But, what if the screenplay was like some Jane Austen thing?  That would fit perfectly.  Anyway…

Feel free to borrow my idea of writing a screenplay in full caligraphy via ink quill.  I don’t think I’ll do it anytime soon.  But, if you do it, I’d like to see the end result.

Now my brain’s back to pondering this again.  It would actually kind of, maybe fit what I’m currently working on.  Brain stop.  Stop it.  Stop it, brain!  You’re not writing this thing with calligraphic ink quills.

BRAIN
But, it’d be so cool.  And it’d stand out.
It’s the most unique idea ever.

Shut up, brain.

There goes my brain again.  Lavishly pondering shit I don’t want to lavishly ponder.  It’s at least part of why I started writing in the first place.  I can’t stop my brain from thinking about, well, calligraphy, or mah jong or buddhism or the numbers in the sequence of –

You get the idea.  BTW, I never play mah jong – totally random.

Focus, brain, you’re writing an important blog post.  The fate of humanity rests on its’ shoulders.

BRAIN
You can’t trick me.  That’s some hyperbolic bullshit.
The fate of nothing rests on this blog post.

Ok, fine brain, you win.

BRAIN
Of course I do.  I always win.  I’m your brain.
You can’t get rid of me.  I control you.

No you don’t.  Ask the buddhists.  Control is a figment of your imagination.

Brain storms off in a huff.

Good.  Now that we got that out of the way.  The thing that is currently playing on the typing keys of my latest screenplay is:

It’s a growth story.  Of course, I suppose if you think about it, many movies can claim that.  But, it’s a coming of age, fish out of water, can you go home again, growth story.  It’s also a journey away from innocence of youth.  A discovering.  An exploratory journey.

I suppose it could be argued many people have such journeys in their lives.  But, I think this one is filled with more questioning.  More searching.  Less blind acceptance.  At the heart of it is a curiosity, a will to do the right thing, and a struggle to do so in the face of a growing, unseen reality.

Cameron Crowe once called “Almost Famous” a love letter to the times, people and happenings of his youth.  [I’m paraphrashing] but he definitely said “love letter.”  This is my version of that.  It is a love letter to a journey I once made.  It is by no means a true story.  It is unlike Crowe’s “Almost Famous” in that way.  However, the emotional resonance of the story, the coming of age, the journey into the depths and back again, it all rings so true to me.  Simultaneously, I have the benefit of time, the distancing myself from it, to see it more clearly – vividly.

It’s a drama.  Maybe a little comedy thrown in.  Definitely some.  Does that make it a dramedy?  I don’t know.  It’s definitely fairly low budget.  That’s purposeful.  But, more so, it speaks to the actuality of the growth process – doesn’t take frills, just a curiosity, perhaps courage, maybe a little adventurousness.

BRAIN
What makes a screenplay a dramedy?

Shut up, brain.  You had your time.

You know what the story really is, though?  It’s the movie I wish someone had made for me.  Back in the day.  And, it’s for the future “me”s of the world.

Inevitably, some reader will tell me it doesn’t appeal to all four quadrants.

BRAIN
I don’t want it to appeal to all four quadrants, fucker!

Thanks Brain.

What I Did in my Latest Screenplay

I wrote an Action/Adventure/Sci-Fi that’s light on action.  At least, the fighting, exploding, bigger than big kind.  I did it purposefully.  In the first Act, when the antagonist faces off with the male protagonist, it’s swift.  Unexpectedly swift.  There’s not the kind of fight you’d expect if you’re expecting a Jason Bourne sequence.  Why?  I’ve seen fights in movies a million times.  They kind of bore me.  My screenplay’s not about fights.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of action/adventure stuff, but I’d classify it as different.  There’s not one big explosion.  There’s not one car chase.  I actually managed to eliminate cars altogether.  Right within the premise.  I eliminated a lot of stuff I didn’t want to write about with my premise.  My premise simplified things, although it also complicates the story.  No one’s said anything bad about my premise.  It’s kind of a killer premise.  Anyway…

There are many ways my latest screenplay is different.  It purposefully breaks tropes.  Goes against the grain.  By the end, that male protagonist actually becomes the damsel in distress.  Women save him.  Women save the day.  And some girls.  And some boys.  But, you get the idea.  That male protagonist becomes the damsel in distress by sacrificing himself, and by placing trust in people more than he ever did up until that point.  And, actually, it’s not so much placing trust in “people” as it is girls and young women.  Three of ’em, to be clear.  One of which is a Chinese girl who speaks Appalachian.

Yes, I challenged myself to write a Chinese girl who speaks Appalachian and get away with it.  And, it was a challenge.  It was also fun.  It also made sense within the story and served as a relevant plot point.  One of the people who claimed to read my screenplay said that character’s dialogue was “tough to follow.”  I guarantee you, it’s not.  A Nicholl reader said their “language is the best in the script.”  They called it “understandable and strange.”  I agree.  It is strange.  And, it is understandable – quite the opposite of “tough to follow.”  And, if you’re wondering, yes, this means this screenplay advanced to third reads in the Nicholl.  But, not beyond.  It was one of the 12% of screenplays that was read a third time, but not one of the 5% that advanced to the Quarterfinals.  Of course, I think if level of difficulty was taken into account like in gymnastics or diving, I think the level of difficulty for what I tried to accomplish was a 10.  Out of 10.  Maybe it’s a 9, but I attempted something difficult.  I challenged myself.  I went against the grain.  I thought people would see that and say, “here’s a writer willing to challenge themselves, do something different, go against the grain.”  Now, I feel like it’s hurting the screenplays chances.

But, I feel like I wrote what I set out to write.  Oh, and that dialogue, according to another reader, “plays an especially vital role in the story.”  They enjoyed the “unique vernacular.”  So, why am I hung up on the readers comment of the dialogue being “tough to follow”?  Great question.  It’s not the comment.  It’s the reader.  It’s what the reader represents.  The hurdles that must be overcome.  Hurdles I don’t want to overcome, because I wrote what I set out to write.

The problem is, I understand how my screenplay how can be hard to enjoy if you’re looking for more of the same.  And, my screenplay starts out pretending to be kind of more of the same… and it slowly shifts throughout.  It wants the reader to shift.  It wants the audience to shift.  It wants society to shift.  Maybe I failed in creating that shift in an effective way.  But, I think it’s the only approach that one can take if one is trying to shift tectonic plates.  You have to have an appearance of something familiar.  And, I started with that.  You can’t just sledgehammer something brand new into place.  It takes a little yarn un-spooling.  That’s what I aimed for.  I thought I performed fairly well in accomplishing what I aimed for.  I know it can still be improved, but, I don’t think it’s as far off as some people seem to suggest.  I think, perhaps, the people reading it and saying that might be far off from where they should be.  Whatever that means.  They’re not ready for the shift.

So, I’m left trying to match my screenplay with people that are ready for that shift.  But, here’s my issue.  It starts off seeming similar.  It starts off feeling like a bit of the same old thing.  That’s purposeful, to bring the same old people along for the ride.  But, those that are wanting to shift, might leave before the shifting even occurs.  That’s the issue at hand.  I fear that the people who would get on board with the totality of the screenplay might not stick around long enough through the familiar seeming opening and set-up.  So, what to do?  I don’t know.

Maybe I just need to hone it more, as one reader suggested the “script fits right in, but does something fresh.”  Maybe I’m trying to convince myself to keep working on it.  It just seems impossible to be a professional screenwriter these days and make an actual living at it.  That’s how I feel.

Lemmings for Genre Singularity

Dear Lemmings for Genre Singularity,

Jump off your lemming cliff.  Then, go watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again.  Tell me what happens twelve and a half minutes into the movie, after Indiana Jones escapes, and he’s flying in the helicopter to freedom.  Yes, I’m talking about the snake.  The pet snake, Reggie.  The moment in which the lemmings for genre singularity would scream out, “How dare they add comedy to an action adventure movie!  You can’t mix genres! ”  Wanna bet!  Watch any great movie.  For that matter, just watch the rest of Raiders of the Lost Ark.  If you don’t find half a dozen comedic moments with one eye, you’re blind.

Raiders is #30 on the imdb top 250, but let’s go higher.

How about Pulp Fiction #5.  You don’t think there’s comedy in that needle to the heart to save a life scene?

Or #4, The Dark Knight.  You seriously didn’t grin a little when you saw The Joker in the female nurses get-up in the latter half of the movie?  Or when Bruce Wayne crashed into that dude who was going to reveal Batman’s identity?  Or most of the scenes with that guy?  The Dark Knight is considered one of the grittiest superhero movies and it’s got quite a bit of comedy interlaced in it.

Fight Club.  #10 on the list.  And, I only need to say two words, “Fight Club.”  That shit’s chock full of comedy.  But, don’t talk about it.

Lemmings for Genre Singularity would pass on all those movies.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wiped out of existence.  Forrest Gump – gone.  Goodfellas – not a chance.  Do I amuse you?  Am I a clown?

Lemmings for Genre Singularity would eradicate the vast majority of the top rated movies on imdb.  Back to the Future.  Gone.  Gone.  Gone.  Django Unchained.  Chained to non-existence.  Most of Tarantino’s movies – wiped out.

Yet, somehow, someway, there are apparently people in the industry who think genre singularity is a necessity.  Even in the midst of Guardians of the Galaxy proving them wrong right now.  The problem is not the movies mixing genres.  The problem is lemmings not understanding that genres can and should be mixed.  Most of the greatest movies do it.  And, if you don’t see that, if you can’t comprehend the importance of mixing genre:

  • providing levity in a tense moment
  • grounding something
  • demonstrating a character trait
  • making one genre aspect more palatable – and, actually, more digestible by a wider audience

Then, you’re a lost lemming, and you should jump off your genre singularity lemming cliff, because you’re not helping anyone by spreading your false knowledge.

Mic Drop.  I’m out.

 

Human Behavior

I believe you need to know something about human behavior to be a good screenwriter.  Perhaps the more you know about human behavior the better your chances are of being a great screenwriter.

I read some feedback recently, for another screenwriter.  So, I come to what I’m about to say objectively.  I didn’t provide the feedback and it’s not my screenplay.

The feedback claimed the premise was bad.  The reader had a point IF EVERYTHING HUMANS DO IS BASED PURELY ON LOGIC.  In my estimation, this reader did not understand human behavior.  Or ignored it.  The reader essentially claimed that since something was illogical it was bad.  Asserting that humans always act logically.  The reader didn’t take into account any emotions.  I saw it right away.  As an objective third party, it was obvious.

This reader was wrong.  The premise was good.  That reader should be ignored.  That reader probably also shouldn’t be an evaluator of screenplays, as they do not understand human behavior.  They can not be trusted for feedback.  Writing screenplays requires an understanding of human behavior.  So does providing proper feedback on said screenplays.

It’s kind of like if I pitched a premise where someone who doesn’t understand human behavior served as a judge of screenplays analyzing human behavior.  That’s ILLOGICAL!  But, it might just be a good premise.

On Gate-Keeping

I recently came across an aspiring screenwriter who wanted some feedback.  This aspiring screenwriter has written several screenplays (on spec) and hopefully learned and improved their craft along the way.  Thus far, their most recent spec screenplay had only received mediocre reviews / feedback.  As is the nature of a subjective art, the feedback was subjectively different.  This person sought more feedback in order to ascertain how to properly proceed.

Then, I learned more about this aspiring screenwriter.  They read scripts for a professional company and a script competition or two.

Let me re-iterate that.  This aspiring screenwriter, who has written several screenplays (but not been paid as a screenwriter yet) acts as a gatekeeper for an industry company and a couple screenwriting competitions.

I’m hesitant to claim there’s anything wrong with this approach.  However, there’s something to be learned here:

If you’re an aspiring screenwriter, your gate-keeper (the initial person deciding your fate with regard to your writing ability) may be an aspiring screenwriter who struggles to get past those very same gates.  Ironic.  Maybe just karmic.

The aspiring screenwriter mentioned above is probably more normative than atypical.  All kinds of script readers are also aspiring screenwriters.  There seems to be a correlation.  But, what does this mean?

What does it mean if a gate-keeper who is reading, judging and evaluating your screenplay has never written a great screenplay themselves?  Does writing a great screenplay make it easier for you to decipher greatness within another person’s screenwriting?

If a gate-keeper is an aspiring screenwriter, could that be considered a conflict of interest?

Understandably, aspiring screenwriters pursue script reading jobs so they can learn the craft of screenwriting.  They can get paid to read screenplays.  But, simultaneously, are they mostly reading amateur screenplays?  And, do they know how to decipher a great screenplay?  If they knew how to create a great screenplay, wouldn’t they stop focusing most of their efforts on being a script reader?  Wouldn’t they instead focus their efforts on performing the job of a screenwriter?  But, then again, if they wrote a great screenplay, and it was blocked by gate-keepers, like themselves, who couldn’t see a great screenplay for what it was, then wouldn’t gate-keeping become a self-perpetuating cycle of blocking great screenplays?

I don’t know the answers to all these questions.  Thinking about it makes my brain hurt.  However, I believe in karma.

What if you were a gate-keeper and you weren’t good at deciphering greatness within a screenplay?  What if that was the case and you didn’t know it?  What if you blatantly rejected some great screenplays?

Could there be some karmic debt you might have to pay, in the future of your aspiring screenwriting career?  Might you be forced to undergo the same rejection of greatness if and when you do write a great screenplay?

If you are a gate-keeper and there is a karmic energy to the laws of gate-keeping, will you perform your gate-keeping functions with a greater seriousness?

What if I told you that for every great screenplay you failed to let pass through the gates, you would be forced to write that many great screenplays before you were allowed to pass through the gates?  In other words, if you missed (passed on) 7 great screenplays, you would have to write 7 great screenplays before being allowed to enter the gates.  Would you re-think reading that screenplay and performing that script coverage when you’re in a horrible mood, just looking for reasons to say “no”?

If and when you’re trying to enter the gates, would you want your gatekeeper to be angry and merely looking for reasons to say “no?”  Or, would you rather the gate-keeper be aware of their own state of mind?  Would you want a gate-keeper to think twice about reading your screenplay if they’re in a horrible mood?

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