8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting

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(This is the last post in my series on professional screenwriting.)

So you sell your screenplay, and then what?

You get that first professional job and all those dreams of becoming rich, famous, and respected for your cinematic brilliance are about to come true.

Until the alarm clock rudely wakes you up.

Because you, my dear friend, are definitely dreaming.  Never lose sight that those visions of greatness that brought you to Hollywood have nothing to do with a real-life screenwriting career.  The true work of the professional is being able to take a punch below the belt and to keep going.

I don’t know how Astrid Cruz knows this about screenwriting, but she does.  When we traded emails last month, and she asked me what it was like to be a professional screenwriter, I was amazed to see such a keen understanding about the most difficult part of the job: surviving.

“What you write will be taken to pieces by a director, rewritten and reshaped, ” Astrid wrote me, with a sophisticated savvy of filmmaking well beyond her years.  “Does it bother you?” she wanted to know. “Does it hurt you that some of your writing may never make it to the screen?”

Does surgery hurt without an anesthetic?

“But how do you let go?” was what Astrid really wanted to know.

Reading this last question that this young screenwriter/filmmaker/student sent me made me realize this is what they don’t teach you in film schools: the truth about Hollywood, and how to survive it.

So here’s what I’ve learned along the way…

Tips They Won’t Teach You At Film School

The first rule in screenwriting is:

#1: Don’t take it personally. 

The biggest problem about Hollywood is that everyone will seem like your friend.  Remember:  They’re not.  If you think your agent, manager, producer, director, or studio executive really cares about you, you should get back on the bus right now and go home.  I don’t care how many parties they invite you to, or how many muffin baskets they send you, Hollywood is a business and screenwriters are simply part of the machinery.  And machinery can be replaced.  No one ever takes a machine personally.

#2: Yes, you will get screwed (or rewritten) eventually. 

If you’re asking “Why?” you need to re-read Rule #1.

#3 Getting paid definitely soothes the pain, especially in the “letting go” stage of screenwriting.

I don’t want to sound like some creative whore, but getting paid for the job helps you to move on to the next job (which hopefully you’ve already started writing – more on that later). When you’re able to pay your rent, clothe your children (or yourself), buy a car, and have something left over for unnecessary baubles, over-indulgent vacations, and the next generation of Apple products, you’re able to say to yourself, “Okay, so this is why I go through all the pain.”

As a screenwriter you have to come to terms with the fact that the only draft that you own is your first draft. You learn to put all of your unbridled passion, brilliance, and hope into that first set of 110 pages. Of course, you will be certain that no one will ever change a word because it’s so brilliant, and of course you will be lying to yourself. But screenwriting is like giving birth – you eventually forget the pain and go on to conceive again, only to go through the grunting, bloody, painful event once more (if you’re lucky) at some later date. That brings me to the fourth rule of screenwriting:

#4 Nothing you write is perfect.

As soon as you put your story down on paper and turn it in you will begin to get notes from everyone. And not just the director. (NOTE: Usually a director isn’t hired until the script is “green lighted” by the studio. Unless the director is developing the script through his own company, but that’s another story completely.) If you’re a professional screenwriter and lucky enough to have your script “green lighted” and a director is hired that means the cocoon stage of your story is about to end and an entire new creature is about to be born. You can only hope it emerges beautiful and looking somewhat like what you imagined: a beautiful butterfly – and not some blood-sucking parasite. But a screenwriter must live in a constant state of denial and always expect the most beautiful of butterflies to be born from our well-crafted cocoons. Yes, and that brings us to the fifth rule of screenwriting:

# 5: Keep your head down, working on your next screenplay.

Forget about that script you spent a year and a half writing that is now in the middle of its transformation into a film. Just separate from it as quickly as possible. Literally, take the money and run because as brilliant as you felt on that day when your agent/producer/studio executive called to say, “We’ve got a go!” you will feel like a total failure when the “production polishes” begin.

Why?

Chances are they won’t be coming to you for those polishes. Every director wants to leave his imprint on the screen – like a dog pissing on a tree. Yes, I’m using the male pronoun because in spite of Kathryn Bigelow, chances are the director will be a guy. Please check out this link: http://www.thewrap.com/music/article/sexist-hollywood-women-still-struggle-find-film-jobs-study-finds-74076 , and if you’re a woman in the film industry, try not to sob too much while reading it.

No director ever takes a film job and sets out to do what the screenwriter has written. Suddenly, this very perfect piece of writing that was so great, so exciting, so promising that people wanted to invest millions of dollars into making it, has morphed into a flawed, terribly-executed, lackluster piece-of-shit that only the brilliance of (fill in here with the name of a current director) can save. And how does the director do this?

By bringing in another screenwriter.

Depending on how prestigious this director is, this can be a name screenwriter that commands more money than you received for writing the story in the first place. When this happens, you can kiss your solo writing credit goodbye. Especially if the new screenwriter has time to do a total rewrite. When that happens, you’ll be lucky to even end up with a “story by” credit.

Rule # 6: It’s all about the credits.

When you get a credit for writing a screenplay you get paid every time that film plays somewhere – on television, on a DVD, or as a download. Also, when you get a credit you automatically join an elite club of professionals.  Production credits are what get film professionals more jobs. Whether the film sucks or not will determine what kind of jobs you’ll get in the future. But if your agent is smart you’ll have at least a year and a half to two years to line up as many jobs as possible (hopefully, good ones) until the film is released and dies a quick death either in reviews or (more importantly) at the box office.

As if you couldn’t tell by now: Going through the screenwriting process hurts like hell. Most of the time you can rant and scream in private, or throw things at home (I had a black walnut tree in my backyard where on more than one occasion I would hurl a recently emptied cocktail glass against its massive trunk, watching it shatter into a thousand pieces while imagining it to be the head of some producer, director, or studio executive). But the real test of a screenwriter’s mettle (and ability to develop a poker face) is during a “notes session” at a production office. To understand how this works, you have to know how a screenplay is developed.

Understanding Your Deal

There are two ways a script is developed and a screenwriter gets a job: 1) Write your own screenplay based on your own story and sell it. 2) Get hired to write a screenplay based on someone else’s story, idea, book, play, comic, or video game. Originals can sometimes bring in more money, especially if it’s a hot topic, or a unique premise. Sometimes there are “bidding wars” among the studios and that can really push a script price up. The problem with selling an original script is that it’s your own little baby, and it’ll be much more difficult not to take all the shit you’re about to go through as personal (See Screenwriting Rule #1).

Once you’re hired, your agent (or lawyer) will negotiate a contract. Every screenwriting contract makes clear how many drafts are expected from the writer. Typically, there are two drafts, and then a couple of polishes. Hopefully, your agent (or lawyer) will be a good one and you won’t end up with a “cut off” deal. That means that they can say buh-bye to you after any one of those steps, including the oftentimes dreaded “treatment” first step. The other steps listed are just “wishful thinking” and will be worded as “optional” But let’s say that you are guaranteed two drafts and a polish – You will have “reading times” in-between those drafts. You’ll also have time built in when you develop the story. That means that once the deal memo has been signed you can go off and do research or start stepping out your story beats. You may or may not be required to include the development team (studio executives, and/or producer) in this step. If you go in and tell them the story it just gives them another opportunity to try to shape their own story and not yours. Ideally, you want to just sign the deal memo, and go off to write your first draft. You don’t want to develop the story and then go in and get permission to write the first draft you want to write. They can really screw you up creatively by giving you bad ideas, and you’ll have to rebuild your story (taking more time out of your writing schedule) to incorporate their ideas. Nevertheless, that might happen. So deal with it – you’re getting paid and that should help heal the pain.

Usually, you’ll get 10–12 weeks to write your first draft. Once you turn it in you might have a reading period of four weeks and this is when you work hard at letting go. That’s easier said than done because when you finish your first draft you begin this euphoric high for having completed the script and you feel like a genius.  But trust me, let go of that perfect script the moment you finish typing, “Fade Out.”  Here are some ways you can do that:

Say Goodbye To That Brilliant First Draft

TIPS FOR LETTING GO

1) Be already working on another screenplay. Just like a love affair that’s falling apart, it helps if you have another lover lined up waiting in the wings. The more creatively promiscuous you are as a screenwriter, the better you can protect your heart from breaking.  I was always a loyal lover and I learned the hard way that it hurts to “stand by your man” because sometimes that man likes to sleep around with other screenwriters for rewrites.

2) Use the reading period (in-between drafts) to separate emotionally from your work. Go on a vacation. Do research for another project. Distance yourself, move as far away from your current project as possible. You probably will have three or four weeks (maybe longer if it’s near a holiday period) before you meet with the development team, and this is your separation period so use it to clear your mind and to rest your body. You will need as much energy and objectivity as possible for the next hell you are about to enter. And trust me, it will be hell. Because the seventh rule in screenwriting is:

#7: No matter how much they tell you they love your first draft, they’ll still want to change it. 

And you will sit in an office and have to take it without crying or throwing things.

If you play poker, you know the importance of having a poker face. Get good at this because you will be asked to sit in many meetings when you will hear the most asinine suggestions for improving your script. Just remember Rule #1 and don’t take it personally. This is one of the jobs of a film industry executive/ producer/director/development person: to give notes. If a non-creative doesn’t give notes he/she (Yes, there are women development people) is not doing his/her job so he/she comes up sometimes with ridiculous notes, notes that make no sense, that only show he/she didn’t really read the script or read it too quickly (usually while sitting in traffic). These people are paid to make suggestions (no matter how ill-informed or stupid) and you are being paid to write them down as notes in these sweat-inducing next-draft meetings. My advice to you is to keep your mouth shut, your head down, and your hands busy scribbling notes (even if your notes are simply creative ways for the people to f&!# themselves). Remember – You can always have your nervous breakdown in the comfort of your own home, and not in some over-air-conditioned Hollywood office.

You’re Not The Only Member On The Team

Now begins one of the biggest challenges you will face as a screenwriter: Do I make the changes they give me and possibly ruin my brilliant story, or do I refuse to do the changes and possibly risk being replaced by another writer who will whore his/her services and make the changes themselves? That is a very personal, moral decision that every screenwriter faces, and I would never suggest to you what your choice should be. Just remember that making films is a collaborative effort, and if you’re unwilling to play with the team, there are thousands of players on the bench more than willing to take your place.

The best advice I was ever given about how to deal with notes was from David Jacobs – the creator of “Dallas” and “Knott’s Landing” – who told me: “Don’t argue with them, just take the notes. Use the ones that make sense, and don’t do the ones that are stupid. Chances are they won’t even remember what they told you to fix. But sometimes they DO give good notes and those are the ones you want to use.”

I will also share with you something written about Sonya Levien – an amazing screenwriter who first started out in the industry by doing scenarios for silent films, became one of the big screenwriters in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, and won the Academy Award in 1956 for Interrupted Melody:

“Levien possessed a certain plot cleverness or dexterity and an editor’s willingness to cut and paste. She succeeded as a screenwriter because she knew how to adapt stories, plays, and novels into “entertaining,” filmable movie scripts, wrote quickly, and made, without argument, whatever script changes her supervisors directed. In addition, she willingly doctored other writers’ problem scripts, never missed a deadline, and worked as many hours as necessary to solve script problems. Seemingly without ego investment in the words she wrote, she rarely complained, and she helped anyone who asked.”

from “A Great Lady” by Larry Ceplair

In my book, that about sums up what it takes to be a successful screenwriter. It worked for Sonya, it can work for you.

The key to doing Hollywood is to be the best damn screenwriter in the business.  Know that in your heart, keep improving and learning, get yourself an agent who can do all the battles (and negotiations), and just keep writing, writing, and writing.

And then direct.  Or produce.

A screenwriter has no power in Hollywood, and Hollywood is all about the power. When Disney wanted me to write a specific screenplay and I said no, they sweetened the deal by offering me the director position.  I was extremely agoraphobic at the time and just getting to the damn note meetings was difficult so I turned down the opportunity to direct.  For me, that was the right decision to make (I hate bossing people around), but for anyone wanting to be a filmmaker, you have to move up to a power position – directing (for films) and producing (for television).

And that leads us to the eighth rule for surviving professional screenwriting:

# 8:  Be flexible

You will make decisions you won’t like, but you will have to make them anyway.  You will have to work with people you don’t like (you don’t respect), but you will have to work with them anyway.  You will get hurt, but you must never show it.  There’s a saying in show business:  Never forget what they’ve done to you.  But never let them know that you know.

Smile big. Look confident. Be prepared. Work harder than anyone else.

And enjoy the adventure.

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 (Read the other posts in this series: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter? It All Begins With A Screenwriter, Emails To A Young Screenwriter, If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?)

If It’s Screenwriting, What’s Acting Got To Do With It?

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(If you’re new to this series on screenwriting, don’t miss reading: So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?, It All Begins With A Screenwriter, and Emails To A Young Screenwriter.)

The-Comedy-and-Tragedy-Masks-acting-204463_489_381I didn’t go to Hollywood to become a screenwriter.

Like those with stars in their eyes that came before me, and the greatly talented unknowns who are there right now, I wanted to be an actress.  I won’t bore you with the details.  If you’re interested, you can always read my book.  Let’s just say the fates decided on screenwriting: agoraphobia and acting don’t really mix that well.

Astrid read my book, so she knew I had studied to be an actress.  She wanted to know if it had helped my writing.

“Has being an actress and having knowledge of the process an actor goes through when getting into character help you understand how to develop your own characters.” she asked in her email.

It’s no secret that writers live in their heads – We’re in there poking around at our imaginations 24/7.  We’re either looking for a story or writing one, and unless we’re writing with a partner, we’re doing it all by ourselves.  That’s not only lonely but it’s limiting.  Where do we find all of our characters?

Through acting.

You can’t be an actor without observing people, and you can’t observe people from behind a desk.  Acting forces you into the world – you become a microscope for observing the human condition.  You don’t just go through life getting from point A to point B – you open your eyes, your ears, your heart to those fellow travelers around you.  You capture their quirks, their voices, their gaits, and you slip all of this on, trying it out for size.  You really do learn how to walk in someone else’s shoes.  You lose yourself and in your place you find characters.

Three Steps to Finding Characters

The best thing I ever did as a writer was to take improvisation classes.  Here is what was expected of us as actors:

1. Observe

2. Capture

3. Perform

As actors, we didn’t just work in the classroom.  We were expected to go out into the world and study people, bring back what we observed, and then, perform it.  Those same three steps are also invaluable to creating fascinating characters that one day you will slip into a screenplay.  And make no mistake, the more fascinating, and complicated, (yet identifiable) characters you put on the page, the greater the chance some executive (reading your script while in rush hour traffic on Laurel Canyon) will be hooked.

But it’s that third step – performing – that helps you understand what to do with those original characters.  It teaches you about the structure of a scene – the beginning (a hook), the middle (complications and conflict), and the end (the payoff). When you perform in an improvisation you learn about tension, and how it helps a scene develop.  You can tell what is working in a scene and what is falling flat because you’re right there in the room with an audience. You can hear them laugh, feel their silences (both good and bad), you can sense if they’re watching, and (most importantly) if they’re caring.  Those are lessons screenwriters have to learn and take back to the workshop, to inject into our writing.

If you’re shy or an introvert as a writer, acting forces you to not be shy on the page. You can’t be an introvert in improvisations – it’ll push you past your comfort zone and stretch you as a writer.  It won’t be easy – it’s painful.  I always felt like throwing up when I was in improv class.  I used to pop Tums or Maalox because the butterflies were so huge.  But looking back, those classes are what started me on a path to becoming a good screenwriter: You will learn how to make your characters much more interesting – how to create multi-dimensional characters that an audience will want to watch. You will learn how conflict moves a story along and how to construct entertaining scenes. Once you’ve taken those improv classes then take a couple of acting classes too. As a screenwriter, you should understand what it feels like to play emotions – not just to feel them, but to perform them. Like a painter, you want to have a palette filled with a wide variety of colors (emotions) for your canvas (the screen), and you do that through acting and improvisation. I honestly don’t know how anyone can write a screenplay (or play) without having been an actor. If you haven’t tried acting or taken an improv class, stop reading right now and go find one. Seriously, sign up.

Someday you’ll thank me for it.

(Read the last post in this screenwriting series, 8 Rules For Surviving Screenwriting.)

(Got a question or comment? Don’t be shy – I’ll actually write you back!)

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It All Begins With A Screenwriter

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(This is the first post of an ongoing series, Emails to a Young Screenwriter.  If you haven’t read the introduction to the series, you’ll find it at So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?)

A script is a dream that’s been captured on paper – by a screenwriter.

We take that dream and give it structure, inhabit it with people, give it motion, and make it into a story.  We shape that story into a script.  And it’s our script that captures the imagination, the talents, and the hard work of a few hundred people working together to make that dream into something real – a film.

Astrid Cruz knows all about dreams – she’s a writer, a filmmaker, a student.  Each one of those roles finds its raison d’être in chasing dreams.  She’s not new to the craft of stringing words together and using those words to communicate with an audience.  When we traded emails over the last month, Astrid’s questions about screenwriting that she sent me weren’t early wonderings from someone new to filmmaking.  They indicated a sophistication, a definite understanding of the filmmaking process and the screenwriter’s role within the hierarchy of film production.

But not everyone knows as much as Astrid.

If you’re not a film student, or you haven’t started to really think seriously about screenwriting, you have some catching up to do.  Luckily, you can do it on your own time, and it won’t feel like homework at all.

You Don’t Have To Pay To Learn Screenwriting

We live in an amazing age – If you want to learn about anything, all you have to do is reach for your keyboard and do a search.  That’s what I did a few days ago when I realized people were going to be reading these posts about screenwriting, and maybe they had never even seen a script before.  Or read one.  Or knew that the pages within one don’t exactly look like the pages of a book. We all know you can spend a lot of money buying textbooks, classes, tutorials, seminars, etc. from (sometimes) knowledgeable people and sources.  But I always wonder when I go on those websites of these experts: How many screenplays have they really worked on?  How many have been produced?  How many story meetings have they taken within the guarded walls of a studio or a network, and how many notes have they sweated over and sweared at?

I’m a big believer in self-education – especially now, with so much knowledge within our reach.  You can learn the basics of screenwriting on your own.  That’s how I got started.

My first episodic television job came from a pitch I had to do for a new limited series on CBS.  I loved watching 60 minute shows, but I had no idea how to write one.  My pitch meeting was scheduled for a Monday, and on the Friday before that meeting my agent came by my house (agoraphobic that I was) and dropped off two seasons worth of scripts from a prestigious ABC television series.  I devoured those scripts, teaching myself about the format: Act Breaks. Characterizations. Story Structure. Tension. Conflict. Resolve. Tag.  Day and night I analyzed those award-winning-lessons-in-episodic television.  When Monday came, I pitched three story ideas – They bought two of them for me to write,  and asked me to be Story Editor for the entire series.

So if you’re wondering if you can become a professional screenwriter without a degree in film, or without the tutelage of some expert (charging you $$$ for it) , my answer would be a resounding “Yes!” If you’re a student still in college, please don’t drop out and blame it on me.  College will give you life experiences and you’ll need that as a screenwriter.  Stay in school: You may meet contacts, and you can network with them later.

But for those of you not in school, those who are flirting with the idea of becoming a screenwriter, this is what you should do before you dive deeply into the questions Astrid asked me about screenwriting:

1) Read screenplays (Until your eyes can’t focus anymore).

2) Watch films (Not with friends, and not sprawled on the couch, dozing. Take notes!).

3) Learn the screenwriting format.

There are two good websites where you can do those three steps listed above. At Script Frenzy you’ll find everything you need to know about script formatting.  There are other pages on that website that I didn’t explore, so don’t hold me responsible for whatever is on that site that they’re marketing.  If you stick to the “How to Format a Screenplay” page, you’ll learn what you need to learn, and it’ll be free.  The second website, Simply Scripts is where you will find movie and television scripts, and it’s also free.

Everybody’s Got A Disclaimer – Here’s Mine

Okay, here’s my disclaimer for everything I wrote to Astrid about screenwriting (and what you’ll be reading this week):

My experiences have been with the Hollywood system – mainstream films and television.  I’ve never been involved with independent filmmaking unless you count the documentary (No Girls Allowed) that I just finished.  But the experience I had making that film is for another day, and another blog post.  Independent films (and shorts) are completely different creatures that allow a screenwriter/filmmaker much more creative freedom and power.  Hollywood is a much harder creature to tame.  There is a reason why studios are enclosed by thick walls, and visitors go through a checkpoint with a guard stationed at the gate.

They want to keep us out.

The film industry is a closed private club. It’s impossible to get into, difficult to stay a member, and for very few is it a membership for life.  It’s the toughest business in the world.  If you want to be a dentist, you go to school, learn dentistry, and become a dentist. Careers work that way.  But not in the film industry.  You can’t even get your own jobs in Hollywood – you need an agent to do that for you.  And maybe a manager too.  Oh and don’t forget your lawyer.  And there are no guarantees in Hollywood.  An accountant still working after twenty years in the real world is considered experienced, and that builds up a career even bigger.  But not in the film industry where the question is always asked, “What have you done recently?” If it’s the wrong answer, if it’s been awhile since you’ve made a sale or collected a development deal check, you can find yourself falling several rungs lower on that ladder of success.  Hollywood is cruel.  If you don’t know that going into it you most certainly will know it on your way out.

If any of this frightens you, you shouldn’t start screenwriting.  It’s habit-forming, and addictive, exhilarating, and life altering.  Writing scripts, and getting lost in your story is the only thing I can think of that makes Hollywood tolerable.  So if you’re interested, if I haven’t scared you away, and you want to learn a little bit more about screenwriting and what it’s like to write a script, come back and read the next post, Emails To A Young Screenwriter.

In the meantime, go watch a film.

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So You Want To Be A Screenwriter?

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Darlene the Tour GuideA couple of months ago a wonderful blogger named Jen Owenby emailed me and asked if she could do a contest involving my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood.  She had read it earlier in the year and really enjoyed it.  She also discovered my website, contacted me, and we started exchanging emails. I was honored that she had chosen my book as one that she wanted to talk about on her website, so I said yes.

Astrid

Astrid “Artistikem” Cruz

I was a little embarrassed when Jen wrote her post about the book and me,  but I liked the idea that six people would get a chance to read my book.  After all, that’s why I wrote it – for people to read.  Jen randomly was going to choose five lucky winners who would win a copy of the book, and one extra lucky person also would have a chance to ask a professional screenwriter (me) any questions they had about screenwriting.  Well, as fates would have it, that sixth person was Astrid “Artistikem” Cruz, a young Master in Communications student at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus.

When Jen emailed me the name of the grand prize winner I smiled because I had just discovered Astrid’s work on a writers group website where she had posted a short film she had made based on her poem, “A Study On Character Development.” I had sent her an email a few weeks earlier telling her how much I enjoyed the poem and the film, and she had written back to tell me she was developing a Transmedia project based on it.  I was excited to meet a young writer who also was involved in making film.  Small world, (small internet): Astrid entered Jen’s contest, and she won the grand prize.

After the holidays, Astrid quickly wrote me four questions – four excellent, multi-dimensional questions (Astrid could also add investigative reporting to her résumé if she ever wanted)  and she really made me think about the craft of screenwriting and what it’s like to be a professional.

Over the years, I’ve had people ask me about screenwriting (I worked non-stop in Hollywood for 25 years), and some of them even suggested that I teach a class about it.  Well, my husband is a teacher, and that’s about as close to teaching I ever want to get.  As my own kids will probably acknowledge:  I don’t have the most patience in the world when it comes to teaching people anything.  Maybe that’s why my son and daughter both learned how to drive from their father and not me, and when my daughter had to learn about camping as a Brownie I insisted we stay at a hotel instead and order room service (true story).  But Astrid’s questions really made me stop and think about the process of screenwriting – something that most screenwriters take for granted when they’re so busy doing it for a living.  For the first time, someone was sincerely asking me how to be a screenwriter.  And for whatever reason, maybe because with age sometimes comes patience, I wanted to explain how it’s done.  Or at least how I did it.

I’ve never won an Oscar.  I’m not a Hollywood name.  But I’ve written some movies, and television over those 25 years of working in Hollywood, and yes, I’ve gotten paid for it.  Enough to raise a family, buy a house, a couple of cars, and have a very nice pension to look forward to (Thank you, Writers Guild of America!)  So when Astrid sent me her questions, and I found myself writing, writing, and (still) writing all of the answers, I thought: Why not share this with anyone interested in screenwriting?

So I asked Astrid.

“Do you mind if I share this on my blog?”

And she was kind enough to say yes.

So here’s what we’re going to do:  Next week I’ll be doing several posts about screenwriting. Make sure you’re signed up to this blog so you’re notified via email when they’re posted.  If you’re not interested in screenwriting, I understand, and maybe you’ll come back in a couple of weeks and read something else here on the blog.  But if you’re a writer,  a screenwriter wannabe, or you’re just someone who’s always wondered about how movies are written, then you might find it interesting to hear it from someone who has been in the trenches.  And if you know of any young filmmakers, or anyone interested in screenwriting, please tell them to drop by next week.

I promise to be patient.

(Are you interested in learning about screenwriting? Please raise your hand if you think you’ll be attending – I want to make sure there are enough chairs. And yes, this is free.) 

(To read the first part of this series click here:  It All Begins With A Screenwriter)

 

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Sometimes You Meet The Nicest People On The Internet

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A few months ago I met a wonderful writer named Jen Owenby who contacted me after reading my book, An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood.  She also has a blog (Jen’s Thoughts) and we’ve exchanged emails, talked about writing, and about juggling life with family, work, and answering the muse.  Well, several weeks ago Jen asked if she could interview me for her blog, and I said (gulp) sure.  She sent me some preliminary questions and asked if I wouldn’t mind answering them for her interview.  Once again, I said (gulp) sure.

Well, Jen’s questions sat on my desk for more weeks than I care to count. It’s not that I was too busy to answer them; it’s just that I was afraid. You see, I’ve got this problem:  I don’t really enjoy talking about myself.  It’s one thing to use my point of view in a story I’m telling, or in a post that’s here at my website.  But I just find it difficult to talk about my accomplishments, or what I’ve done as a professional screenwriter.

It just feels too much like bragging.

The one rule that my parents taught us (along with never allowing us to say “Shut up!”) was that bragging or being boastful was rude.  They never said that to us in so many words.  But if they thought we were boasting a little too long (and too loudly) about some great feat we had accomplished, one of them would just smile and the other would say, “Careful, or your arm will fall off.”  That was our cue to get humble.

I never stopped and thought as a kid what the heck that phrase meant.  But I know that it usually worked, and I kept my conquests to myself.  It was only today that I thought about it (thanks to Jen’s interview questions) and I decided to look up that saying on the Internet.

I couldn’t find it anywhere.

But I found something like it.  And I think this is probably what my parents meant when they cautioned us about losing a limb by bragging: “Don’t break your arm by patting yourself on the back.”  My parents had their own graphic way of interpreting that saying, and well, whatever the phrasing, it took hold of me and still sticks today.

That’s why it took me so long to answer Jen’s questions.  But I did manage to answer those questions, and Jen’s two-part interview with me is currently posted at her site.  I tell you this not to (God Forbid!) boast, but because Jen is doing a random drawing – giving away five copies of my book to five people who show up at her website and say hello.  Also, as a Grand Prize, one person who wins will be able to talk with me (and ask questions)  one-on-one about professional screenwriting.

People seem to really enjoy An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood – How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House (except for the occasional Michael Jackson ultra-fan who hates me for writing a particular scene in the book), and I like the fact that it’s not going to cost five people anything to get a chance to read it, if they win.  The Grand Prize makes me a little nervous because of that bragging issue I have, but I’ve had a twenty-five year career as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood and people seem to like to ask me questions about writing for movies and television.

So, if you haven’t read my memoir, or you’d like to win a copy for a friend, or if you’re just interested in learning more about professional screenwriting, you might want to check in with Jen at her website (Jen’s Thoughts), and say hello. And when you read Jen’s interview with me, please don’t think I’m bragging, or patting myself on the back.  My mom wouldn’t like that.

And I don’t want my arm to break.

(Click here to register for Jen’s Giveaway)

 

He’ll Always Be Michael To Me

Steven called him Mike.

Of course, he could get away with that but I couldn’t. Steven’s last name was Spielberg, mine wasn’t.  I was somebody smaller swimming around in these show business (shark infested) waters.  I was the little minnow who somehow was now keeping company with some very big fish – just treading water at times, and trying not to sink.

We were at a kickoff luncheon for Disney’s top secret “Project M” – a film that was supposed to be in development based on “Peter Pan.” Steven Spielberg sat to my right in his private dining room at Amblin Entertainment, and directly across from me was somebody I tried (without success) to look at as just another collaborator and human being.  But his dark eyes, beautiful face, his gentle ways, and his illuminating smile made that impossible.

I was in awe of him.  I still am.  And he’ll always be Michael to me.

Today I’m thinking about him – celebrating him as a collaborator, and artist. I don’t want to remember the events of three years ago, so I’m pushing them to the back of my mind.  Burying them away, and trying to forget.  I can do that because I’m just a regular person.  But when you’re a celebrity, it’s a lot more complicated.

When you become a celebrity your life becomes public property.  You try to reclaim it with bodyguards, security systems, handlers, spin makers, and money (lots of it) to help you hide.  But the moment your life hits a sharp curve, and you lose control, the world will know about it, and your life is over.

Think about that.

We all have times in life when we make mistakes (some of them big mistakes) that we’d rather forget.  Usually we do forget.  We push those mistakes to the farthest (and deepest) places in our mind.  We make ourselves forget, and unless we’re in the safety of a therapist’s office, or a priest’s confessional, no will ever know.  But if you’re a celebrity, everyone will know.

Michael never had a chance to be a regular person.  It’s tough enough when you become a celebrity as an adult.  But when it’s thrust upon you when you’re a child, and you really have no power over it, it can end up being destructive and terribly sad.

But that’s not the Michael I want to remember.

I spent this morning listening to Michael’s voice, trying to remember the Michael I once knew – the one I was lucky enough to work with on “Peter Pan.” I listened to the tapes he asked me to record at the story meetings the two of us had. And what I heard on those tapes is the Michael that I once knew:  His excitement.  His sensitivity.  His love for Peter Pan.  His commitment to the creative life.  And his passion.

Also, his giggles. Michael loved to giggle. And that’s what I choose to remember about him today.

Giggling made him sound just like a regular person.

(Michael as Peter Pan artwork by Mikl Olivier)

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor…

The last thing this writer ever thinks about when she’s writing is a press release.

Some writers – the new breed of writers, are much more commercial than I’ve ever been.  The reason is simple: Every time I sit down and write I’m never sure anything is going to come out. That really doesn’t matter when you’re not getting paid, or you don’t have a deadline, but when your mortgage is depending on it, well, let’s just say I’ve spent my share of sleepless nights.

I wish I could tell you that as a professional writer I plan out every little moment, every bit of action, dialogue, or character nuance, but that’s not how it works with me. When the words flow, it’s like some hidden natural spring that I’ve traveled miles to find. There’s no other way of putting it: Writing is just a miracle.  I don’t try to understand it.  I just sit down at my desk and hope that it happens.

When it does happen, and I end up with a finished product, I feel I owe it to the fates (and especially to the story) to sing its praises.  If it’s a blog post, I tweet, I Facebook, I LinkedIn, I email, I practically stop people in the street just to announce this beautiful new birth. In the case of a book, the announcement often happens with an official press release.  I’m proud to share this press release that came out yesterday for An Agoraphobic’s Guide to Hollywood – How Michael Jackson Got Me Out of the House.

http://www.prlog.org/11891788-award-winning-screenwriter-debuts-memoir-on-michael-jackson-project-and-agoraphobia.html?embed

Some of you have already read the book, and I thank you for that.  If you haven’t, you can take a look up above in the menu under the title of the book where I’ve put the opening pages, the website, and the press release.  If you like it, there’s a link to Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or even iTunes where it’s for sale.  I don’t much like promoting my own words.  But as I said, I don’t think they really belong to me.  I’m just pointing out the way to the story.

It’s the least I can do.