Writing Screenplays: Tools and Talent

So here’s a little progress report on ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES as a screenplay.

Target number of pages: 90-100 (represents around 90-100 minutes of movie)

Current page count: at/around 50

I’m using Celtx (the desktop version) to help put the screenplay in the right format and organize the characters. I’ve used Word in the past (there is a style template for screenplays), but Celtx makesit easier to write by just typing, a few clicks and tabbing. In most cases, you’re just typing/picking character names and writing dialogue. Short cut keys that are available appear at the bottom of the screen. Here’s a screen shot of a page of the script in Celtx:

A script in Celtx

A script in Celtx

Anybody who thinks, “Wow writing a screenplay should be easier than writing a novel,” should be taken outside and shot in the most dramatic way possible.

Adapting a book into a screenplay is not easy. First of all, books take their time. They’re not too worried about overall story size (but word count can be dependent on the genre). A book can be as elaborate and detailed as the writer wants it to be.

A screenplay is just the basic facts, ma’am. You have to consider the setting, the characters, the dialogue, the action and keep things concise and visual. Two characters talking in a room for a very long time is not very exciting.

Take for example a scene between Dexter and Doctor Corbin talking in a prisoner meeting room at the penitentiary. In the story, this scene takes pages. Corbin and Dexter square off at one another: Dexter accuses Corbin of helping Zak too much with his “disassembler” device; Dexter threatens Corbin with losing his privileges of writing to Zakary; and then Dexter tells Corbin that Zak came over to see him and was asking questions about why the doctor went to jail.

That’s a lot of dialogue across many pages. But I had to cut all that down and get to the meat in a much shorter amount of time. Here’s what that scene turned into:

INT. VISITOR ROOM, PENITENTIARY ISLAND - LATER
Dexter enters one half of a small room, divided by a thick glass wall. He sits in front of table at the glass wall. There is a microphone in front of him.

He looks up. High in the corner there is a video survellience camera, watching.

Doctor Corbin is brought in by a PRISON GUARD. Tired and drawn, he sits on the other side of the glass wall. There is a microphone for him.

DOCTOR CORBIN

(voice heard through speaker)

So, Captain Dexter. Another year goes by. What brings you to my humble abode?

DEXTER

(into microphone)

Are you well, doctor?

DOCTOR CORBIN

I am quite the celebrity, so I have been told. I am watched constantly. My activities are recorded. Even my mail is censored.

DEXTER

You know the rules, doctor. I wish things could be different.

DOCTOR CORBIN

(angry)

Do you? (a beat) To be silenced. To be muted. I don't think you have a clue as to how I truly feel!

SQUEALING feedback comes across the speaker system.

Dexter rubs at his ear.

DEXTER

How is your family? Have you spoken to them yet?

DOCTOR CORBIN

No. my yearly meeting with my brother and his wife hasn't happened yet. (curious) Why do you ask?

DEXTER

What about your nephew? He still writes you, doesn't he?

DOCTOR CORBIN

Ah. My prodigal nephew. Yes, he writes me and I write him back. He's a wonderful lad. Very smart.

DEXTER

(puts newspaper against glass)

I thought you might be interested in this.

CLOSE UP: NEWSPAPER PAGE AND HEADLINE

TEXT: HIGH SCHOOL FRESHMAN TAKES FIRST PRIZE

DEXTER (CONT'D)

(reads)

It says here that Zakary Corbin won the all-district science fair with a unique, labor-saving device that disassembles radios, televisions and other appliances.

DOCTOR CORBIN

Splendid! Well done! That boy is going to go far, I tell you.

DEXTER

Indeed. (folds paper) With the right guidance, he might go very far. Or he might get into a lot of trouble.

Doctor Corbin's smile of jubilation melts away.

DOCTOR CORBIN

(aloof)

I have no idea what you're talking about.

DEXTER

Zakary is a very smart young man. I know, I met him the other day.

DOCTOR CORBIN

(surprised)

You ... spoke to him?

DEXTER

He wanted to know why you were in here. What you had done.

Doctor Corbin is embarrassed and sulks.

DEXTER (CONT'D)

He doesn't hold it against you. He admires you. You've been writing to each other?

DOCTOR CORBIN

We swap recipes. Talk about food. They can't take that away from me! I just want to help the boy succeed!

DEXTER

(holds up newspaper)

Don't you think you've been helping Zakary a bit too much? This disassembler ... how can he  comprehend the advanced science you're just handing over to him?

DOCTOR CORBIN

The boy is innocent! He only wants to learn! (looks at camera) Please don't tell them. They've taken so much away from me!

DEXTER

You and Zak can keep on writing. Try not to be so bitter about the years you've lost. Just be his uncle. He loves you very much.

DOCTOR CORBIN

(calms down)

I will heed your advice, Captain.

What do you think? Can you make it writing for the movies and TV?

 

Would you go see a ZAK CORBIN movie?

ZAK and POGO sketch

ZAK and POGO sketch

Well, of course you would! So would I!

In case you haven’t noticed, things with me have been a bit under the radar lately. I’ve been writing chapters to NEPTUNE’S FURY and posting them (to great exultation) on Wattpad. I’ve been sending the freshly-edited and re-written VANQUISH to prospective agents and presses. I’ve been drafting and thinking about my NEXT BIG ADVENTURE (which I can only hint at as being very steampunky and sorcery like — always wanted to try magic).

And I’ve been thinking about Zak’s popularity on Wattpad. I can’t begin to thank all the folks who leave comments on the chapters. More than a few number of readers have expressed interest in going to see ZAK CORBIN as a movie. Well, why not? Daryl’s artwork is great and the story certainly has enough action, romance and thoughtfulness.

And then I came across Amazon Studios. Check through their website and there’s a chance for you to submit movie and TV scripts and have them judged (and possibly optioned). It’s kind of works like American Idol, with voting and judging.  Well I think this is a great idea. So much so that I’ve been adapting MASTER OF MACHINES into a screenplay.

Which is both entertaining and frustrating. Movie scripts don’t contain excessive details and you can’t have long passages of description like a novel. A screenplay is about character, dialog, plot and storytelling. You have to follow the right format.  Page count is crucial. Each page represents approximately one minute of movie time, so you can’t go over the usual 120 pages or you have a film that’s too long.  For a kid’s film, like ZAK might be, the page count is even lower, maybe 90 – 100 pages. So everything has to happen, in short order, the best that you can make it.

So when I do post the screenplay to ZAK CORBIN, I will definitely be reaching out to many followers and well-wishers to come check it out and vote on Amazon Studios!

 

 

Impatience and Ignorance: The Algonquian New York Pitch Workshop

It was a dark and stormy night ....

It was a dark and stormy night … in New York

 

Many of my friends and those who  follow me on Facebook and Twitter are aware that I spent the last long weekend in New York City attending the Algonquian New York Pitch Workshop.

I’m happy to report that I’m back, so I can tell you about the conference, its pluses and minuses, what happened and what’s next. First off, let me advise you and the other writers out there considering a workshop like this to read the site and try to explore the web sites that talk about the conference. These comments and opinions led me to apply for the workshop in the first place.

Next, I want to talk about why I went and the reason why I plunked down my money (not a small amount) for the workshop, a hotel room in New York near Penn Station, food and train travel (and a trip to the kennel for my dog).

This year in particular has been one of great hope and great disappointment for me as a writer (and yes, there are some major personal things happening too). I entered the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest for the second year in a row, hoping I had a real contender. And I did, as I placed in the semi-finals again for YA (just like I did with Zak Corbin the previous year).

Armed with my contest ranking and a Publishers Weekly review, I set out to find my fortune sending queries for VANQUISH to many literary agents. I received a huge number of no responses, some firm nos, a few maybes and a couple of requests for manuscripts. I spent a lot of time waiting, and even more time wondering why the reaction wasn’t as hot as I hoped it would be. Did the contest not have the clout that it once had? Were agents genuinely uninterested with my cool concept? What was missing from my submission?

Most of the agents who read the manuscript said the idea was indeed unique and the writing was enjoyable, but there was no connection. Something was missing: be it the characters, plot, conflict, resolution–something. The agents weren’t helpful. I realized that I was experiencing writer’s tunnel vision and I needed outside help. I hired an editor (the wonderful Sarah Cypher, from The Threepenny Editor) to review my entire manuscript and try to figure out what was going wrong. Sarah found some real issues which I tackled in a massive rewrite intended to be ready in time for the NY Pitch Workshop (oh yes, that thing).

The reason why I wanted to go to the Pitch Workshop was to nail down, once and for all, why VANQUISH wasn’t winning hearts and minds with agents and editors.  The purpose of the Pitch Workshop is to craft your pitch (a short book-jacket “blurb”) that’s supposed to get an editor excited and say “Yes, I want to read that!” And then you sit in front of three editors (it was supposed to be four, but the last person had an issue), face-to-face, and you give them your pitch.

That was the plan as I believed it was supposed to be. What actually happened during the workshop was unexpected. [What I'm trying to lay down here is that some writers who pay for these things might expect one thing and end up with another.]

At the onset, our workshop leader told us that our manuscripts–no matter how finished or polished we thought they were–weren’t.  Writing is in a constant state of flux: the agent may request rewrites, the editor will want rewrites, and so on and so on. We were warned that no published work of writing is ever finished–until it hits the typesetter. The other thing we were warned about was that our ideas, no matter how grandiose or thought-out, probably couldn’t be sold to any publisher in the form they were in. Our stories–in their current state–were not “high concept” enough. They needed a strong hook. They had to be cinematic. Selling a book was like selling a movie.

For nearly every person in our workshop group, including me, this was a slap in the face. We conveyed our pitches to our workshop leader and we were given brutally honest assessments of their marketability. Just to let you know about the format: a pitch consists of telling your story’s titlecomparables and the actual pitch. (No more than two hundred words)

Nearly everyone’s title, including mine, was shot down. I had to wrap my head around that. I thought for sure that VANQUISH portrayed the characters’ heroism and their bravery. It was a strong word (it’s the name of a British luxury supercar). Well, in hindsight, the word is perhaps is too close to the word “SQUISH”. Nothing heroic about that. So I needed a new title. Right off the bat.

Secondly, we needed to have on-the-mark ‘comparables’–published books that our work could be compared to, but not so huge that they were laughable.  For example, you can’t say your work is comparable to Harry Potter AND The Hunger Games. That’s ridiculous (and also called Divergent). Those works are too big, too popular. So you have to tone things down and set your sights on realistic  expectations.  Luckily, I had good comparables: LEVIATHAN and WARLORDS OF THE AIR. Some folks didn’t and they had to figure out ones that were.

Last was my pitch. Immediately there were problems. My pitch was too long (taken from my query, which is a different tool). My idea was cool, but one editor declared that readers of YA are young girls. Some bestsellers (yep, you know which ones) have crossover appeal with boys and adults, but a majority of the readers are teen girls.  My story was about World War II (or an alternate history of it) and the main protagonist is a girl who becomes a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain. Those things have no shelf appeal.  (So girls and vampies, yes; girl who shoots a bow and arrow in a dystopian future, yep; but a girl flying a Spitfire == no)

The workshop leader sat down with my pitch and tore it to shreds. The story became something about a giant flying battleship with a “Sink the Bismark” tone. The girl main character was gone, now there was a boy who flew the fighter plane and the (Viking) sky pirate became a girl.  This became the “high concept”. The title was changed to, well, I’m not fond of the new title so I won’t mention it here.

And that was the pitch that I presented to the editors at the workshop. Not VANQUISH.  It was an idea for a story that got nods from the three editors I met with at the conference. So the pitch worked. But it was for a very different book.

Which I would be excited about, except that for the entire past year I’ve been trying to get agents to say yes to VANQUISH.  So I’m confused and torn. I have a completed manuscript, with edits, that I could continue to send out to agents as queries.  I could write the story I pitched and send it to the editors who requested it. Or I could put VANQUISH in a drawer (sad but true) and try something else.

Finally: Was this all worth it? Many writers at the conference said they had a worthwhile time, but everyone is facing extensive rewrites or worse: their work was rejected by all three editors. That’s a huge dilemma. The conference forced us to rewrite the concepts of our stories in the space of a few hours, something that might have originally taken weeks or months. My story certainly changed in so many aspects to the point that it’s a completely different story. Nothing about the previous story can be salvaged. Of course, there’s nothing stopping people from dismissing the workshop’s findings and sending out their works as is. Which will probably happen.

The workshop leader professed that many participants will fall into one or both of two pitfalls: impatience and/or ignorance. Writers will impatiently rewrite their story, hoping to get it out as quick as possible, without taking the time to craft their best. They will ignore the warning signs, use cliches, fall into plot traps and basically commit the same errors that befell their work the first time.

As for me, I’m just going to spend my Christmas relaxing and thinking. I’ve labored and worried too hard this year. Time for a little mental fitness break.