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Focus on the short story: Ray Bradbury’s “The Emissary”

Today, I thought I would focus on a short story for a change.

What I really like about Ray Bradbury’s “Zen and the Art of Writing” is that he suggests that authors should only write when they feel a white-hot passion…. a burning idea that just has to be let out. For me, that has never been a problem. I have too many ideas and too little time. However, he also says that he started out writing by simply listing nouns…. writing down phrases like “The Skeleton” or “The Jar” and letting the story write itself. I was amazed to read this, as I did the same thing myself when I began writing in my teens. These days, however, I begin more often than not with an idea. But using this kind of word-association game can be a useful way to dodge writer’s block for those afflicted.

Which brings me to my favourite Ray Bradbury story, “The Emissary”.

 

 

Bradbury wrote tons of gold. You’ve probably heard of “The Martian Chronicles” or the film made from one of his short stories “The Beast from 20,000 fathoms”. He also wrote the screenplay for “Moby Dick”, a few “Twilight Zone” episodes, as well as the Rod Steiger classic “The Illustrated Man”, and the dark fantasy novel “Something Wicked This Way Comes”.

But for me it’s his collection “The October Country” that is my fave. The preface states it is about:

“… that country where it is always turning late in the year… whose people are autumn people thinking only autumn thoughts.”

It still sends shivers up my back. Rumour has it one story, “The Homecoming” was the seed for “The Addams’ Family”, especially as Charles Addams himself illustrated the early editions of the book.

“The October Country” contains some great stories like “The Jar” and “The Scythe”. But for me “The Emissary” is the best of the lot.

 
It’s a story about a boy who is sick in bed and whose dog is his only link to the outside world. Dog is an explorer, and he always comes back carrying the scents of everything he comes into contact with. One night, Dog goes missing. Then he comes back. But he’s not exactly alone…

 

The Emissary – from the Ray Bradbury Theatre TV show!

 

Here’s a sample:

“Martin knew it was autumn again, for Dog ran into the house bringing wind and frost and a smell of apples turned to cider under trees. In dark clock-springs of hair, Dog fetched goldenrod, dust of farewell-summer, acorn-husk, hair of squirrel, feather of departed robin, sawdust from fresh-cut cordwood, and leaves like charcoals shaken from a blaze of maple trees. Dog jumped. Showers of brittle fern, blackberry vine, marsh-grass sprang over the bed where Martin shouted. No doubt, no doubt of it at all, this incredible beast was October!”

The story combines childlike innocence and beautiful prose with an eerie dread. It’s the kind of story you grasp instantly, but you still get more out of it on repeat readings. The exquisite prose reminds me of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. It twists language to create new words out of old. But more, Bradbury captures the exuberance of sheer living. His exclamation mark at the end could be either the boy’s viewpoint or our own.

 

Martin makes sure anyone who finds his dog knows where to come looking for its owner…

 

For me, Bradbury evokes a kind of timeless, 1950’s era America of small towns that was about as foreign as you could get from inner-city Manchester where I grew up. His America is a place of wonder, mystery, nature and a million fabulous scents, smells and activities. A kind of Fourth of July of the mind. “The Emissary” conveys all this in one brisk paragraph. The rest of the story is even better. I encourage you to read it. And then to read everything else Bradbury ever wrote.

One of things writers sometimes forget about is that writing should be fun. It should move us, make us laugh or weep. We live out our fantasies and our nightmares in our writing. So be like Bradbury, who said : “You must stay drunk on writing so that reality cannot destroy you.”

Stay drunk!

How to sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK – Part Two!

Here is the second part of my article on how to actually sell screenplays for film and television to Hollywood while living abroad, for instance, in the UK. This may seem like a daunting if not impossible task. But let me assure you, it can be done.

To recap what we learned last time:

 

Step One – Write the screenplay

Last time we covered the fact that there really is no magic bullet, no secret trick for success. Also, be prepared for failure. You will encounter rejection. Lots of it. But the beauty of writing is that there is no way to “fail” providing you keep learning and improving in terms of skill.

 

Step Two – Learn about the business

We also covered the importance of leaning about the movie business. Doing this will help you understand what types of script people want and the different people who work in the industry: agents, managers, producers, actors, directors and executives. Learn their jobs. Discover what it is they are looking for.

 

So without further delay, on to Step Three!

 

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in "Adaptation" by Charlie Kaufman.

Nicholas Cage as Charlie and Donald Kaufman in “Adaptation” by Charlie Kaufman.

 

Step Three – Reverse engineer your career

What kind of writer do you want to be? Do you know the kind of screenplays you wish to write? Do you long to write character-driven indie productions or big tentpole pictures? And do you know how to get there?

When I was first starting out, I knew my strengths were writing action scenes, creating cool, often fantastical images and snappy dialogue. I am also a huge comic book fan and enjoy adapting material from other sources. So I looked at what it takes to be a successful studio writer for hire.

I wrote that down.

Then I looked at the easiest way to become that kind of writer: get an agent and get handed writing assignments. Okay, now how to get an agent… I found that it was possible to submit directly but that this was unlikely to garner results. Many (but by no means all) agents pick up clients based on recommendations from other people. So I knew I needed an established track record of sales or options to get their attention.

Backtrack a little: how do you get a sale or option without any contacts and without living in Hollywood?

I scoured the Internet for sources to help get screenplays produced and to meet other people who might be able to give me that recommendation. I discovered listing sites like Inktip and others where you can even pitch direct to an agency via Skype or in writing.  It’s no longer necessary to live in L.A. to sell pictures to Hollywood. That’s another screenwriting “lie” you can expect to hear a lot. Does it help? Sure. But you still need an awful lot of luck and talent.

So I wrote down where I wanted to be. Then I listed all the steps that could get me there. Then I simply followed those steps!

Obviously, it’s not that simple. Would that it were. Some steps are much harder to take than others and none of them ensures your script will be accepted. But this kind of mind-mapping can be a good way to focus your career and create a strategy. There are many routes to getting a film made. The above methods are just a few of them.

One strategy for success is copying the strategies of others who are successful. For this I recommend studying how big name screenwriters got where they are. Read Tales from the Script edited by Peter Hanson and Robert Hermann to get an idea of how top Hollywood writers made it in L.A. There’s no one path. Joe Eszterhas was a journalist, William Goldman a playwright and novelist, Antwone Fisher was a security guard at the studio that produced his incredible life story. Paths to success can be as individual as the writers themselves.

This is the biggest step. It requires time and commitment. Read the stories of other writers. Listen to interviews and podcasts. The Internet contains a wealth of information. Use as many free resources as you can find. That’s really the only way to find out what working as a screenwriter is really like. Without working as screenwriter, of course.

 

Step Four – Don’t quit.

You only fail by quitting.

Along the way I have seen many people give up on screenwriting for a variety of reasons. They have a family to support and have to get a “real” job.  They don’t have the time. They can’t stand the constant rejection.

In order to be taken seriously in this business, you have to take the business seriously. Like any career, screenwriting requires an investment of time and money from you. You have to commit to it.

Write. Read. Submit. Repeat.

 

Step Five – No, really. Don’t quit.

It’s easy to be crushed by rejection. When you’re typing away in solitary confinement, day after day, it’s also easy to get bitter and frustrated. It’s also very easy to get desperate, especially when you need money.

If you do need money, I recommend getting a job that will allow you to write. A 9 to 5 job will grind you down. A vocation will demand too much of you. Find something that will leave you time to write each day.

One thing you must do is learn to love the process. By this, I mean the process of Writing, reading, submitting and repeating.

You won’t hear back from everyone who requests a copy of your script (Annoying as that is, but true for so many reasons it’s impossible to list them). Even if it is accepted your work may be rewritten. You may be fired from projects. Not paid for others. Projects you invest lots of time in will come to nothing. People you work with may be difficult, others will be pleasantly professional. You may even become friends with some of them – and wouldn’t that be cool?

Elliott Grove in his excellent book Raindance Writer’s Lab says you should rephrase the statistics. Think of every rejection as bringing you one step closer to a “yes”. And you only need one “yes” to make it happen.

Good luck!

 

How to Sell a Screenplay to Hollywood from the UK – Part One

trumbo

The screenwriter’s dream: now you too can get to work in the bath.

 

Okay, here is the big one. How do you sell a screenplay to Hollywood while living in the UK? I suppose this is what this blog is supposed to be all about. So let me take you through the steps involved. Sounds simple, right?

First of all, about myself: I am a British screenwriter, but I’ve made spec sales and had options with companies in the UK, Europe and Los Angeles, USA.

Secondly, as William Goldman famously said: “Nobody knows anything”. He was talking about the movie business. So as you read this, please place your tongue firmly in your cheek and take all of this with that pinch of salt.

However, this being the confessions of an English screenwriter and all, I thought I should at least attempt to share with you what I have learned when trying to sell a script to Hollywood without having to go and live in L.A..

And what better way to start than with the secret “one easy step to success”?

The secret trick to success

First of all, here is the secret trick — the magic bullet, if you will — that all professional writers know about…

Ready?

There is no magic bullet!

Yes, that’s right. There is no secret trick to selling a screenplay. No magic bullet. No one way that ensures success. There is only hard work, practice, lots of practice, a lot of luck, and a lot of failure.

“What? I’m going to fail?”

Yes. You will fail. Sometimes spectacularly. Sometimes you will want to quit. But to quote from Benjamin Franklin “Energy and persistence conquer all things”. That is especially true of screenwriting.

Let me explain…

There is no one way to sell or option a script today. Elliott Grove in his excellent book “Randance Writer’s Lab” compares the movie industry to an enormous building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people who you can make deals with or who can further your career in some way: agents, industry executives, producers, etc.

Your job is to get in the doors. It doesn’t matter which one. Just keep trying.

Now all this sounds pretty wishy-washy, so let’s get down to brass tacks.

Step One – Write the screenplay

The first step to selling to Hollywood is: you must be able to write great screenplays. This is not as easy as it sounds. Many writers produce script after script which never sells. But as long as you are learning your craft, you are progressing.

“But how come so many bad movies get made? I just saw a terrible movie. I could write better than that!”

Yes. Bad movies do get made. For a variety of reasons. Sometimes a producer just desperately needs a screenplay because they have actors or locations available. Sometimes studios butcher screenplays because they’re trying to appeal to a broader audience than the material can support. Sometimes a “star” will insist that the script goes in a terrible direction to make them look good. Sometimes a hurricane will blow the set away. The list goes on. And don’t forget that making movies is hard. Really hard. Heck, if it was easy everybody would be doing it, right? Just because you can spot a bad movie doesn’t mean you can make a good one.

You must write, write, write. Devour all the screenwriting books you can find.

You must read screenplays. Actually read them.

Watch movies. A lot of movies. Deconstruct them on paper to see how they work.

This will require you to invest time in your craft and will also involve spending money. A lot of money.  In short, you must approach screenwriting like a job. Because that’s what you’re trying to achieve.

I can’t stress Step One enough. You will be up against UCLA college graduates who have done nothing but read and write screenplays for the past 3 years. Think you can measure up to them? Knowing your craft is the only part of the business you can control. So make sure you deliver a superb script. “Competent” is not enough. “Good” is not enough. Your screenplay must be “great” to stand out from the hundreds of thousands of screenplays circulating every year.

Got that? Good.

Once you’ve done all that, you may be ready for step two:

Step Two – Learn about the Business

Let’s go back to Elliot Grove’s comparison of the movie industry to a building full of doors. Behind those doors are the people you want to do business with. And this IS a business, make no mistake. It’s called “Showbusiness” for a reason. Yes, you can enjoy giving your creativity full reign when you come up with an amazing scene. But remember that you have to sell the script when it’s done. And like any salesman, you must know what people want.

One mistake writers often make is to try to predict trends. Every now and then a movie does phenomenal business at the box office. For up to a year afterwards, everybody wants something similar, be it “Memento” or “Saw” or “The Lord of the Rings”. You may be tempted to begin work on a similar project, hoping that people will go crazy for it. But by the time you have finished your script, which can take anywhere from a month to even years, the market will have moved on, and people will be clamoring for the next big thing.

What’s a writer to do?

Instead of thinking in terms of the hot movie genre, you should think more in terms of what is sellable. You will find that certain types of movies are always in demand, while others are pretty much dead. For instance, don’t bother writing that Western or Period Drama. Even if you see a major picture in those genres. The spec market for those films are almost impossible to break into. Most new films in those genres are initiated by the studio, who then hires a writer for the project.

(Caveat: remember how we said that nobody knows anything?)

My advice is, if you have a great idea for a new Queen Boadicea film, turn it into a novel. Then Hollywood can come to you when it sells a million copies. Wouldn’t that be nice?

Genres that are always in demand?

Cheap ones.

Block Comedies, low budget horror movies, found footage movies (a recent trend which probably will not continue as the justification behind them becomes more and more bizarre), movies without lots of SFX, low budget thrillers, “contained” movies with only a few locations or characters.

Did I mention cheap?

One of the biggest independent hits of all time, “Halloween”, which launched the careers of John Carpenter and Jamie Lee Curtis, was about a man in a William Shatner mask walking around homes with a knife. It was made for $325,000 and raked in $47 million at the box office alone.

There are several other things you must know about the movie industry before embarking on your odyssey to net that lucrative spec sale.

What is a spec sale?

A spec is a screenplay initiated by a writer who has not been hired to write a screenplay. That’s about it.

Sometimes studios mainly generate their own projects and put calls out to everyone they know (agents, managers, producers) that they are looking for writers for the project. The lucky writer than gets to “pitch” their take on the material to the studio. These jobs are called assignments.

The film industry is bigger than Hollywood.

Motion pictures are made all over the world these days. China is a huge upcoming market. My first option was to a company based in Germany. I’ve also written for companies in England and Canada as well as the USA. Plus, nowadays everyone can be a filmmaker. Just invest in a decent phone camera. Recent indie breakout hit “Tangerine” was filmed entirely on an iPhone. Now you too can be Cecil B DeMille! (note: if you don’t know who Cecil B DeMille is, stop reading this immediately and go watch a ton of old movies made before 1960. I’m serious).

Sales vs Options

More fun terms! In the movie industry, you don’t have to sell your screenplay until it’s produced. You can option it instead. The producer usually pays you less money than they would for a sale. They then have the option, within a specified period (say, 12 months) to get the money to make the picture. If they do, you should be then paid more money to sell the script to them. If not, you get the rights to the script back. It’s a win-win for a newbie screenwriter.

However, an option can also be a disappointment if the producer is not willing to pay a lot. I have seen (and signed) options for as little as $1. Are you being taken advantage of? Well, that depends on where you are in your career. A dollar option to someone with no credits whatsoever is a step up the ladder.

So, to recap: there is no one way to sell a script. You can sell screenplays around the world these days, thanks to the Internet. But you must work on your craft. Read as much as you can. Read screenwriting books, read online articles (there are many free ones), read the trades (by which I mean the trade magazines such as Variety or The Hollywood Reporter – all of which are online), subscribe to newsletters. The Scoggins Report can also give you invaluable guidance as to which companies are buying which type of script. These will all give you a feel for how the industry operates. You must become familiar with this, because these are the people you will be trying to sell your work to.

Hot tip: You will find that writing equates to about half of a screenwriter’s working life. The rest involves that dreaded word: marketing. You must become your own PR expert, agent, manager and marketing guru, because that is how you are going to sell your script. Enjoy!

In the next part we’ll look at what to do after you’ve written the script, and how to (hopefully) get it into the hands of Hollywood professionals!

It all sounds so easy, doesn’t it?

See you next time!

The Dreaded Coverage (or How I learned to Stop Worrying and Love Feedback)

Today’s topic is about one of the most dreaded things a write can encounter: professional feedback, otherwise known as coverage. How to use and deal with feedback is one of the most important skills for a writer. As a screenwriter, that goes double.

WHAT IS COVERAGE?

Coverage is obtained when a writer submits his or her screenplay to an industry professional for written feedback. The professional does not undertake to produce the script, but instead provides a written report listing its strengths and weaknesses.

The difference between professional coverage and feedback from other people, such as the writers in your writers’ group (you do have a writer’s group, right?) is that you pay for the former. But the principles about how to deal with feedback are the same whether you pay or not.

HOW TO GET COVERAGE

There are many ways to get coverage. Websites and screenwriting gurus abound offering consultancy services ranging from around $50 upwards. The sky is the limit. I have seen consultants ask for thousands of dollars. The pros and cons of these services may depend on where you are as a writer, and I won’t go into whether they are worth the fee here.

You can also approach your peers – other writers. I would not suggest using friends and family unless they are also writers.  Your mother will always say your latest torture horror opus is “lovely, dear”. Likewise, friends may not wish to offend you. Those who are not writers may simply lack the skills needed to analyse a script or to tell you whether it is marketable or not. So always go with someone with experience of writing, editing or script reading.

Now let’s dig a little deeper into what coverage means to a writer:

 

Signs of when it's time to move on. (via Bluecat)

Signs that it’s time to move on.

STANDARD COVERAGE FORMAT FOR SCREENPLAYS

In the film industry, coverage consists of 2-3 pages of synopsis, followed by (usually) 2-3 pages of actual analysis, sometimes followed by a score card. The “meat” of coverage is the 2-3 page analysis. The score card illustrates at a glance the strengths and weaknesses of your work according to that script reader.

What is the purpose of the synopsis, you ask? I submitted my script to get an analysis, not to have my own story told back to me! I’ve been swindled!

Well, it’s tempting to consider the fist 2-3 pages as filler and ignore it. But another way to look at it is to consider that your story may not have translated itself into someone else’s head the way you imagined it in your own.

Writing is the art and craft of transferring thoughts from your own head into someone else’s. It is a kind of telepathy. Whether the other person “gets” your scene or not, or has a different impression of what just happened in your story, can be a sign that you were not successful in getting them to imagine everything as you did.

 

HOW TO DEAL WITH COVERAGE

Whenever a writer receives feedback, whether verbal or written, the initial reaction may well be to clench your teeth, dig your nails into the arms of your chair, then launch into a tirade about “idiots not getting it” or accusing the reader of skipping important parts that explained everything.

But remember, as a writer your job is to communicate. Just as the customer is king in the restaurant industry, in the writing world the reader is king. If the reader doesn’t get  what you want them to get, you have only yourself to blame.

Another reaction is panic. Panic at the amount of work that needs doing. Despair at the insurmountable cliff one faces. Did you spend enough time on your script to begin with? Most writers write around ten drafts of a script and at least two drafts of a novel before even showing it to anyone.  Now another rewrite looms. How will you ever get the work done?

Trust me, it’s something everyone dreads.

The way I deal with this is as follows:

Read the feedback all the way through, from start to finish.

Do nothing.

Let it percolate. Don’t be temped to dash off a hasty e-mail cursing the reader for his or her stupidity. If you’re in a writer’s group or face-to-face situation, take the comments with good grace and make a note of them. You will be glad you did. Giving feedback is an art in itself (that’s for another time). Some people are better at it than others. The other person may only wish to help as much as possible. They may think that by being ultra-critical they are only strengthening the material.

Let the dust settle.

After about a week of nursing your feelings by overindulging on cappuccino or another beverage of your choice go back to the feedback. Read it again.

Now that your feelings are out of the way, doesn’t it make more sense? You may even be inspired as you read and gain ideas about how to improve the script. How did you miss that plot point? And of course that character wouldn’t do that!

Maybe the reader knows something after all.

Read it again.

This time, break it down into the things that don’t work. Also make a note of the things the reader liked. Don’t change these. These are your story’s strengths.

I always copy the feedback into another document, then edit it down so that I just have the reader’s criticisms  bullet-pointed in a list.

Still looks like an awful lot of wok, doesn’t it?

Here’s a secret tip.

Do the easy stuff first!

Did you use the wrong word somewhere? Commit a typo? Attribute dialogue to the wrong character. Go and change that sucker now. Each time you do, remove that point from your document.

Feels good, right?

You’re making progress!

NOW FOR THE REAL WORK

At this point, go back over your shortened document. Now separate the points out into things like “STORY”, “CHARACTER”,  and “DIALOGUE”.

I now go through the script one time for each of these things. Take another pass for story problems, then another for character and dialogue etc. I recommend Paul Chitlik’s excellent book “Rewrite” for a structured approach. If you already did this, now’s the time to do it again.

By taking a structured, methodical approach to addressing feedback, you can make the process of rewriting much less painful.

If you find yourself unwilling to throw out a cherished scene or piece of dialogue, simply save another version of your novel or screenplay file. You can always go back to it. And you may find that without the psychological crutch of having it there you’ll find a much better way to write that scene or show that character’s journey.

Feedback is painful. It’s painful because we writers like to believe that what’s on the page is a little bit of our soul. And rejection hurts. But that’s not how it is. Rare is the script that cannot be improved, even Oscar-winning screenplays. Henry James, the great American novelist, used to return to his stories and tinker with them ad infinitum.

By taking time to let your wounded pride recover, you can approach feedback with a clear head. By breaking it down into small tasks, you can make rewriting seem less daunting. If you do these things, receiving feedback may become less like a chore.

As always, if you think I’ve missed anything, or disagree with me, let me know. I welcome the feedback!

Happy (re)writing!

 

POSTSCRIPT:

There will come a time when you cannot rewrite any more. Recognising this is just as important as knowing the script needs improvement. When you reach this stage, don’t delay. Get it out there! Form a marketing plan and execute it. Don’t let someone else beat you to the punch. This has happened to me several times. There’s nothing worse than seeing someone sell your idea to a studio when your script is sitting on a shelf waiting to be marketed!

 

 

How to get your short story published!

By way of an update about the Revolutions Anthology I am editing (along with my fellow members of the Manchester Speculative Fiction Group), I thought I would share some insights about how to submit a story to an editor.

The reason I’m doing this is that I have been surprised by how many people don’t know the best way to do this. So here are some tips about sending out your short stories if you’re a fledgling writer (or even if you’re not).

Submissions are closed now for the anthology, and myself and my fellow editors are busy reading through a small mountain of stories. But I have noticed some simple errors that will stop you from being published. 

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Except for a word limit of 6,000 words we only had two rules for the Revolutions Anthology. One, stories had to be speculative (science-fiction, fantasy, horror or slipstream). Two, they had to be connected in some way to Greater Manchester, England.

That was it.

First of all, here’s what NOT to do.

– Send things the publisher doesn’t publish. We would love to have published a novel, but that wasn’t what we set out to do. We wanted short stories. Period. So sending us anything else is just a waste of your (and our) time.

– Send us a long list of stories we might like and ask us to pick one. Sorry, but it’s up to you to decide which story to submit.

Here’s what you should really do:

– Be professional.

That’s it.

The general public often see writing as a strange profession, part shaman, part celebrity. You sit down and magically produce a novel or short story which a publisher then falls in love with. And lo, a legend is born!

Alas, not so.

Writers are just like anyone else. They have to work.

If you want to submit a short story you have already written to a publisher (for instance, an anthology or magazine editor) check first to see if it’s the kind of thing they would want. FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES!

This is so important, I’ll say it again: FOLLOW THE GUIDELINES!

Editors are busy. They set guidelines because it helps them save time. We all want to save time. So save yours and theirs by FOLLOWING THE GUIDELINES (there, I said it again).

So what should you send?

1) Your story, either attached or emebedded in the e-mail as per their GUIDELINES (!).

2) A short covering letter (short being the operative word). This should tell them the following:

– Who you are

– What you are submitting (How long it is. What genre it is. It’s title)

– If necessary, a short one paragraph biography detailing any relevant publishing credits you have, or any relevant experience you have. Note the word RELEVANT. If you’re a palaeontologist and your story is about fossils, that MIGHT be relevant. If you’re a divorce lawyer and your story is about a wertiger, it probably is going to be less relevant. Use common sense.

 

DO try to address the letter to the editor by name. It’s not always possible. Some are shy about putting their names on their wesbites. But “Dear Bob” always sounds better than “Dear editors” or “Dear Sir/Madam”.

DO NOT spell the editors names incorrectly.

DO NOT assume that anyone who uses their initials only is a man (or woman). A good tip for this is to address them by their initials, e.g. “Dear T.J.”

A good letter should also include a good-bye. Something simple like “I hope you enjoy the story and look forward to hearing from you in due course, Yours sincerely, Eric.” is enough.

That’s it.

After that, send your shiny e-mail off into the ether and wait. Wait again. Then wait a bit more.

DO NOT pester the editor with e-mails every few weeks asking if they’ve read your story. I  myself only ever chase up a submission if it’s something I’ve personally been asked to submit. It’s a sad fact that some publishers never reply to you. Take that as a rejection.

Once you’ve done all that, either:

a) REJOICE! Your submission was successful. You are now a published author!

or

b) REPEAT the above.

Nobody ever said being a writer would be easy! Writing requires persistence, patience, and above all, a thick skin. Not everyone will appreciate your genius right off the bat. Don’t let that deter you. Get back in their champ and keep swinging!

Following the above will not guarantee that your story will ever see the light of day. However, it will guarantee that the editor does not immediately burn your submission (hopefully). Doing these simple things will ensure that you come across as a professional rather than an amateur. And, sometimes, that makes all the difference.

 

 

The only guide to writing a logline you’ll ever need – Part Two

This is the second in three posts on how to write a logline.

In the first post, we looked at what a logline is and, more importantly, what it is not.

We learned that a logline is a basic selling tool for your screenplay or novel. It is  a one or two sentence pitch that aims to tell the reader about your story in a succinct manner in order to save the reader TIME.

We also talked about the difference between a logline and a tagline, a teaser, and a movie cross.

Now comes the meaty part. This where we break down what goes into a good logline.

The NUMBER ONE MISTAKE writers make when pitching their story is that they do not invest time in their marketing materials. Incredible as it seems, they spend months or even years honing their script, then hammer out a logline in minutes and wonder why nobody wants to read it. However, a good logline can open doors, create working relationships, and get your project sold or made.

Sound good, right?

Then read on!

 

ELEMENTS OF A GOOD LOGLINE

A good logline gets a producer, agent, manager, executive, publisher etc. to continue their relationship with you. Ideally, it gets them to read the script. To this end, you have to ask yourself “What is a producer etc. looking for?”

ANSWER: something they can sell.

Okay. Not very helpful. But you should already have done your research on them to check if this is their kind of project. More on that another time. For now, let’s look at things from their point of view. How do they know if this project is the right thing for them? Bear in mind that they have many, many submissions to go through every single day?

ANSWER: by ensuring it contains the following:

A great TITLE.

The GENRE.

A HOOK.

Who is the HERO?

What is the CATALYST?

What is the nature of the CHALLENGE they must face?

And for added points:

The Hero’s JOURNEY.

The ARENA.

Who thought loglines could be so complex? Actually, it’s simpler than you might think. Most of these are intuitive anyway.

But let’s go through them one at a time, just to make sure you have them:

 

TITLE

It sounds obvious, but a movie should have a great title, something that sets it apart from everything else. Ideally, it should also inform the audience aboout the subject matter. I’ve noticed that many well-made but obscure movies don’t do as well as they could have because they have a generic title that says nothing about the subject or the plot.

For a recent example, how about “Edge of Tomorrow”? A title so generic they had to rename it for the DVD release. It doesn’t say anything about the plot or the characters.

Or how about: “John Carter”. This assumes that you already know who John Carter is. For my money they should have gone with: “John Carter: Warlord of Mars”. Now that would have piqued my interest.

One of the best movie titles is “Ghostbusters”. It’s funny and tells you the entire premise. It gives away not just the concept, but also the fact that this is an action-comedy movie.

 

GENRE

You can sometimes even give this away in the title, as with “Ghostbusters”. Otherwise, you want to indicate it in the logline.

To use my the example of my own script “Demophobia”, can you tell what genre this is:

A man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

Clearly something speculative is going on. But is it a sci-fi? A fantasy? A horror? I would say the logline implies that this is a straight story, not a comedy. But to make it clearer what kind of genre we’re talking about, I added:

When his girlfriend goes missing following a clinical drugs trial, a man with a phobia of people must search a crime-infested city for his missing girlfriend, only to come into conflict with a mysterious entity controlling the homeless population.

There. That hints that this is a sci-fi thriller, which indeed it is. Maybe there’s a little horror thrown in there too. It’s okay to have more than one genre in your logline, BTW.

Okay, so  my own logline isn’t perfect yet. But there’s a way to go before we’re done. In any case, giving the GENRE away in the logline will allow your producer to see at once whether your script is right for him or her.

 

THE HOOK

This is one of the main stumbling blocks, and something that’s talked about  a lot when discussing a “high concept”.

QUESTION: What is a “hook”?

ANSWER: A hook is the kind of thing you use to catch a fish. It’s a shimmering, bright, dancing object that teases your target into wanting to know more, until they request the script and… ulp! They”re hooked!

So much for metaphors. Now let’s get more serious:

Sometimes the hook is a fantastic concept that’s never been done before. For instance, “An ocean liner capsizes in a storm. The survivors must fight their way out through the sinking, upside-down ship to survive.” (The Poseidon Adventure)

Sometimes it’s just a catchy idea. Something that’s both new and familiar at the same time: “A father loses the right to see his children, so he dresses up as a woman to become the ideal nanny.” (Mrs. Doubtfire)

One of the easiest ways to ensure you have a hook is to use IRONY.

Irony is defined in the dictionary as: “A situation that seems funny or strange because things happen in a way that seems the opposite if what was expected”.

In a logline, it could appear because the hero has a specific occupation, and get to see the opposite of what we expected to see happen to her unfold in the story.

Or, if the hero has a particular character FLAW, you can play on this by making the worst thing possible happen to them.

Some “high-concept” movies do both.

For instance: in “Liar Liar” an attorney is forced to tell the truth after his kid makes a wish that comes true.

This logline tells us a lot about the movie. It’s funny. So it’s probably a comedy with a hit of satire. It’s not necessarily going to cost a fortune to shoot, unless we get someone like Jim Carrey in the lead. And it’s IRONIC. An attorney (who, it is implied, lies for a living – it is a comedy, after all) is forced to tell the truth! It’s irony based on occupation and character flaw (he lies a lot). Classic high concept!

 

HERO

Movies are often mythic stories. Especially high -grossing ones. As a result, producers like to see a central hero.

Most of the above examples make it pretty clear who is the hero of this movie. However, what do you do if you have an ensemble cast? For instance, The Poseidon Adventure doesn’t have a central hero.

ANSWER: The easiest fix for this is to pick out one character and make them the hero.

“Ocean’s Eleven” is about a group of con artists who rob casinos. All of the eleven are part of the group. But who changes the most? Either that, or who is the central focus of attention? It’s got to be Danny Ocean himself. So a logline for this might read:

“An ambitious ex-con gathers together a team of experts to rob three Las Vegas casinos at the same time.”

 

So there you are. We’ve covered TITLES, GENRES, the HOOK, and the importance of a central HERO. But we’re not done yet…

There’s a lot to digest in this post. So next time we’ll take a look at the rest of our logline ingredients: the CATALYST, the CHALLENGE , the Hero’s JOURNEY, and the ARENA.

See you there!

The Best-Selling Authors of All Time!

Here’s an interesting collection of facts that might help you decide what kind of writer you want to be.

Today I found a breakdown of the best-selling authors of all time. The results are not what you might expect. Here are the top ten. Figures are estimations.

1. William Shakespeare  2-4 billion copies sold worldwide.

2. Agatha Christie  2-4 billion

3. Barbara Cartland  500 million – 1 billion

4. Danielle Steel (no relation, sadly) 500 million – 800 million

5. Harold Robbins  750 million

6. Georges Simenon 500-700 million

7. Corin Tellado  400 million

8. Sidney Sheldon  370-600 million

9. Dr. Seuss  100-500 million

10. Gilbert Patten 125-500 million

Now, if these figures are to be believed (and you can view the source here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_fiction_authors) you may be surprised at some of the names. Where is J K Rowling, the darling of YA fantasy lovers? And what about Stephen King, Anne Rice, Dan Brown or Tom Clancy? All best-selling authors.

So what connects these writers?

Agatha Christie wrote whodunnits. Cartland, Steel and Tellado are all romance writers. Harold Robbins  wrote steamy pulp novels (one of them being the blueprint for the Elvis Presley movie King Creole). Georges Simenon created the detective Maigret. Dr. Seuss writes for pre-schoolers, and Gilbert Patten wrote Boys’-Own style adventure stories.

They were all also prolific (including Shakespeare, who wrote 38 plays, 142 Sonnets and two long poems). Corin Tellado, for example, wrote over 4000 novels.

And, with the exception of Shakespeare, none of them are renowned for producing “high art”.

The moral of this tale might be to produce as much as possible. “Never mind the quality, feel the width”, as the saying goes. Quantity certainly seems to earn more money than quality in publishing terms.

However, if we look just below these names, the figures tell a different story. Shakespeare was living in the 16th century. The others are all 20th century writers. They have the advantage of a modern publishing industry, media and advertising.

How surprising, then, to find that Leo Tolstoy is the 12th name on the list. The writer of two famously long “heavy” novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina, has also sold hundreds of millions of copies. CS Lewis, author of the Narnia stories, has also sold between 1-200 million books. And Russian playwright and poet Alexander Pushkin may have sold up to 357 million copies of his works.

So what does this tell us? Certainly, in a mass-market media, churning out books helps. However, the public also seem to appreciate quality writing. Foreign markets are also a huge source of sales. So before you pick up your pen, decide whether you’d rather write romance or sci-fi, crank out thousands of books or perhaps write only one, as Presidential Medal of Freedom-winning writer Harper Lee did (until recently).

And then forget about ALL of this and just try to write something good.