October 28, 2021 / 4 Comments

Ready… Set… NaNoWriMo!

Spooky season is among us! Ghosts! Vampires! Nightmares! Panic!—no wait, we’re talking about NaNoWriMo this time.

Or are we?!?

Hopefully you’re not really panicking about NaNoWriMo. It’s supposed to be fun. It’s a bragging rights contest, something to make us focus on actually doing this for thirty days rather than saying “someday I’ll write it all down” for another month.

Wait, does everyone know what I’m talking about? In case you’re new to the ranty writing blog, we’re talking about National Novel Writing Month (Na-No-Wri-Mo). It’s a completely free, no strings, no requirements writing contest where you try to write, well, a whole novel in a month. Really, as much of the first draft of a novel as possible. There’s also no prizes, no trophies, no real prestige. As I mentioned above, I basically just get to say I did it. To someone else and to myself. Most importantly, to myself.

There’s a good chance this sounds a little intimidating. Don’t let it be. This is the writing equivalent of a fun run. It’s got a starting date and a goal, but past that it’s just you. Whatever pace you want to go at, however far you want to go with it. No pressure at all.

In fact, here a tip for you. Use that knowledge. Focus on it. Don’t worry about anyone else. Don’t think about your friends or the people in your writing group or that guy on Twitter bragging about his daily word count. Don’t consider what a future agent or editor might want. Toss all of that away. Forget all of it. Take a deep breath. Breathe in. Breathe out.

And now just write.

Seriously. Just write. Nothing else. For the next thirty days, forward motion only. No re-reading. No editing. No corrections at all. Don’t look back. Under no circumstances hit the up arrow or page up or push the scroll bar. None of that. Not even to go up to the last paragraph. We’re moving in one direction and we don’t stop moving in that direction. Making myself to only go forward means I’m making myself write. I’m not spending time rethinking yesterday’s work or tweaking that first encounter or double checking my spelling. I’m just writing.

And, yeah, this means things are going to be a little… well, very messy. Lots of typos. Dangling plot threads. Characters who suddenly change names/ hair color/ genders halfway through. Or are just suddenly dead because they really should’ve died back at the bank ambush and I’m only realizing that now and we’re only moving forward, right?

And that’s totally fine. Seriously. Remember, NaNoWriMo is just a first draft. It’s not going to be the thing we sell or the thing that gets us an agent. It’s the thing that’ll need some more time and some more work. Because a month isn’t that much time. Really. Even for pros.

Like I mentioned above, the goal here is to get as much work done on a first draft as possible. And first drafts are almost always messy things. In fact, I became a much more productive writer once I accepted that first drafts were messy things. It freed me up to and let me focus on getting things down on the page rather than getting them perfect the first time.

And getting things down on the page is what NaNoWriMo is all about.

So, as I often say… go write.

No, wait. A few other things before we all get on with the writing.

First, if you happen to be in the SoCal area and have a lot of free time at the end of the month, I’m going to be at SDCC Special Edition over Thanksgiving weekend. Sunday, to be exact. I’m doing the con edition of the Writers Coffeehouse, talking about writing, publishing, the state of the industry, and whatever other questions you might have. No idea what size crowd to expect, so we’ll see what happens there.

Also, I may be taking a little bit of a break here for a week or three. I’m feeling a touch overworked/stressed with said con, the holidays, the new book, and, y’know, the world in general. So I just want to take some pressure off and try to get to a place where I feel a little more caught up on things. Plus, to be honest, I feel like I’m just rehashing a lot of stuff here, and I’d love to be able to give you something new and, y’know, actually useful.

Anyway, that’s where things are at. Now fuel up on some Halloween candy and go wild with NaNoWriMo.

Now go write.

June 29, 2018 / 2 Comments

But If I Just Do This…

            A quick post this time.  As I mentioned last week, I’m kinda in a deadline crunch and… well, this time nobody stepped up to bail me out. Thanks again to Kristi Charish for helping out.  Screw you, every other writer friend I have.
            Naaaah, not really…
            Anyway, what I wanted to talk about this week is a bad decision I see every now and then. I saw it a lot when I used to read for screenplay contests. And I still hear mentions of it now and then.
            So… okay, look, we all love the idea of getting published, right?  Of getting some kind of recognition—maybe even some kind of payment—for what we do. I mean, it’s the big goal.  The brass carrot.  The… something. 
            I’ve already run out of humorous mixed metaphors.
            As I was saying, back when I was reading contest scripts for ramen money, one thing I’d see again and again was people who’d done a clumsy, half-assed pass on their screenplay in a feeble attempt to make it eligible for a contest.  A few cuts here. A find-and-replace there. Maybe adding in a random scene or two.  Believe me, it was very clear that’s what happened.
            Plus, talking with writers at many points in their careers, I sometimes hear ideas and plans. Cutting this novella down.  Bulking that short story up.  Maybe doing another quick draft and playing up Phoebe as a bisexual half-Asian for this one magazine. Especially if Phoebe isn’t either of those in the current draft.
            It’s really tempting.  I get it.  We all want to get published, win the prize, get the recognition.  And we’re willing to do what it takes to get there.
            I probably don’t want to make sweeping changes or cuts to my story just to fit a market or contest or trend. If a magazine doesn’t touch anything over 8000 words and my short story is 8108… okay, maybe I can snip a bit here or there. But if they don’t want anything over 5000, well… my story’s probably out.  That’s almost half of it gone.
            Likewise, cramming in a romance just so I can try to get into a Valentine’s Day anthology… that probably won’t work.  Or some hamfisted references to God and angels so I can win some of that sweet faith-based contest money.
            And I know you’re probably smiling right now, but keep this in mind…
            I’m not making up random examples.  People do stuff like this.  All the time.  I read scripts for a faith-based contestand—in the course of two years—read no less than five sex-romp comedies where characters would suddenly, for just one scene, look up to the sky and beg for God’s help.  And one of these was—dead serious–for help getting the hot female supporting character out of her clothes.
            Because that’s funny and sexy and religious.  See? Triple threat!  How can it lose?
            (it lost)
            I saw someone in an online writers group just push for “cutting your story down to meet their requirements.”  This was a discussion about an 11,000 word novella being trimmed to meet the needs of a 8,000 word market. And an amazing number of people chimed in to say “yeah, go for it.”
            Y’see, Timmy, once we’ve been doing this for any amount of time, we start to get a feel for ideas.  Some are great for flash fiction or short-short stories. Others are made to be novellas.  And some are just waiting to be fleshed out into books.
            And, yeah, some books are bigger than others.  The book I’m wrapping up is a solid 100,000 words, but I know Chuck Wendig recently finished a monster almost three times that size, and another friend who has one coming in at a nice tight 85,000.
            My point is, if I rewrote and edited and polished and my final story came in at 12,000 words… there’s a chance it’s a 12,000 word story.  And cutting 25% of it will make it… well 25% less than a good story.
            In my experience, most editors aren’t interested in 25% less than a good story.
            Likewise, if I can make major changes to a character and it has absolutely no repercussions anywhere in their story… maybe I don’t have a great character.  If making Phoebe bisexual instead of straight doesn’t change anything in my story, it’s doubtful this is the kind of story a niche market is looking for.
            As always, there’s no absolutes here.  Maybe I really can afford to lose three or four thousand words.  Perhaps my story does need a different viewpoint to excel.

           These aren’t the kind of alterations that get rushed out overnight.  They’ll have repercussions throughout the story. They’re require other changes.  And then more revisions to make sure those changes don’t cause changes.  A good story—even a short story—is a house of cards.  I can’t just pull one out and replace it and think nothing’s going to happen when I do.  Or take ten out altogether.

            I should think long and hard about forcing a story to meet a new set of requirements.  Length, style, content, whatever they may be.  When I’m done, it may not be what it was.
            Which would suck if it was good.
            And this has turned into a much longer rant than I planned.  Apologies.
            Next time… well, I just finished a draft.  Maybe I’ll talk a little bit about that whole process.
            Until then, go write.
January 19, 2017 / 3 Comments

RIP Screenwriting Tips

            Hey everyone!  We’re closing in on February, and you know what that means, right?
            It’s screenwriting contest time!
            If this is all still a bit new to you, screenwriting contests can be a phenomenal way for me to get my foot in Hollywood’s proverbial door.  Winning—even just placing—in the right contest can get me noticed by agents, producers, and directors.  They’re not all that powerful, no, but it’s not hard to figure out which ones are.
            (Hint—it’s not the one shouting “our contest can get you read by hundreds of top people!!”)
            Now, with all that being said…  Here’s why I’m not going to offer any screenwriting advice this year.  Or for the foreseeable future.
            Actually, first let me talk about pagers.
            As some of you know, I worked on set in the film industry for about fifteen years, starting back in the early ’90s.  And back then, if you wanted to keep working, you had to have a pager.  Pagers were vital.  You couldn’t have much of a career without one, because when someone was crewing up they didn’t want to wait, and jobs tended to be first-come, first-serve..
            Granted, that was then, this is now.  By… what, ’99, everybody had a cell phone. Pagers were obsolete.  Even if they still worked, depending on one kind of implied… well, I may not be the most cutting-edge, up-to-date person to hire. And while the film industry isn’t really like any other business on Earth… it’s tough to find a job when you’re ten or fifteen years out of date
            And honestly, how stupid would I look if I showed up to a film set these days—to any job—wearing a pager?  Oh, sure, it still does what it’s supposed to, still lets people get in touch with me (assuming I live somewhere where that network’s still active) but would anyone take me seriously?  I’m using technology from twenty years ago—and expecting other people to use it, too.
            Heck, how many people here even still remember how to use pagers?  From either end?  I’m not sure I do.  Maybe it would pop back if I was in that position but… well, I don’t want to bet on it.
            See, the need to get a job didn’t change.  The need to communicate didn’t change. But how we do it changed.  A new industry standard developed.
            Which brings us back to screenwriting.
            Screenwriting is kind of a two-part art.  One part is the storytelling aspect of it.  That’s a lot of the same stuff we talk about here all the time.  Good characters.  Good dialogue.  Clever structure.  Exciting action.  Neat twists.
            The other part is format.  This is the delivery mechanism that gets my screenplay in front of contest readers, agents, producers, and hopefully actors and directors.  Format is seriously important in screenwriting. I’d say maybe 30-35% of my final score.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I’m not using the current, up to date format, my screenplay immediately looks dated and wrong.  That first part, my actual story, may work phenomenally well, but if every reader’s going into it thinking “Wow, what is this, twenty years old…?” that’s a big strike against me right up front.  And even just that slight bias can mean the difference between acceptance or… well, ending up in the big pile on the left.
            In the past I’ve offered a lot of tips on basic script formatting. And while a lot of those may still be good, I honestly just don’t know which ones those are.  Assuming any of them are.
            At this point, I haven’t really done any work with scripts in about ten years.  I stopped working on sets in 2006. Stopped writing about screenwriting in 2010.  My last screenwriting-related job was five years ago, and even that was a pitch/synopsis that didn’t involve writing an actual script.  I know enough to say my experience is pretty much out of date.  Maybe not entirely, but mostly.
            If I want to be writing screenplays, I need to be looking at new ones to learn the current accepted format.  Not the classics.  Not my childhood favorites.  They may teach me some storytelling stuff, but if I want to learn formatting… well, I really shouldn’t be looking at anything from before Barack Obama was President.  Doesn’t matter how many Oscars it won, doesn’t matter how much my professor praised it back in film school—I cannot learn formatting from old scripts.
            Because I don’t want to be the person showing off my new pager.
            Next time…
            Okay, look. Here’s one tip, just so we can end a bit more positive.  You know what other season this is?  Oscar season.  A lot of the studios are releasing the scripts for their “Best Screenplay” hopefuls.  Not all of them, but a couple of them. That means those new, very current scripts can be picked up easily and legally (no piracy!) for perusal.  Hit Google and see what you can find. I bet The Arrival’s out there.  Maybe Deadpool, too.
            See. Positive ending.
            Next time, I have a few Capital Ideas to share.
            Until then… go write.
February 27, 2014

The Ecchh Factor

Pop culture pun.  I don’t do puns, normally, but it works.  As you’ll see.

This is mostly going to be for screenwriters.  Writers of prose—please don’t feel left out.  There’s a couple of things in here for you, too.

Tis the season for screenplay contests.  A few of the big names have opened their mailboxes for submissions, and there’s a dozen more noteworthy ones past that.  It’s a great way to get your name out there and even win some decent money, too, if you plan accordingly.


As some long-time readers know, I used to read for a couple of screenplay contests (four different ones, in fact). I have several friends who read for some of the same ones, and some others, too. This time of year used to be a time of great sadness for us. And also a time of great drinking. Usually for the same reasons.

For an average contest, I’d probably read about a hundred scripts per year. That means there were years I’d read over three hundred scripts, usually all in the space of three or four months. It was a fascinating (and sometimes horrifying) overview of amateur screenwriting. To be honest, it’s one of the big things that convinced me to start the ranty blog.

It also gave me a real sense of certain patterns. There were certain types of scripts that would show up again and again and again. And it got to the point that I (and most of my friends) would let out a groan—an Ecchh, if you will—when we opened the next script and realized it was another one of those stories. Usually we could tell within the first few pages. In rare cases, the story would go along fine for twenty or thirty pages and the big first act reveal was… it’s just another one of those stories.

I drank a lot during this period of my life.

Now, I’m not saying any of these are automatically bad scripts that no one would ever pay a dime for. We could probably check IMDb box office listings right now and find examples of more than half of them. But contests aren’t about the box office, they’re about the submissions pool. Unless it’s something truly, utterly spectacular, each of these all-too-common screenplays is going to get an automatic response from a contest reader. An Ecchh.  And that means my script is already starting in the negative. And even if the reader’s just subconsciously knocking off two or three points for being an Ecchh-inducing script, those points could mean the difference between making it to the next round or winning a contest.

So, a few types of screenplays you should think twice about before submitting.  I’ve mentioned some of these before, so if they sound familiar… well, I thought it was worth repeating.

The 50% Script
I’ve mentioned this idea here a few times. In any pool of submitted material, around half of the submissions can be usually be disqualified by page three. It’s when I submit my stoner sex comedy to a Christian values screenplay contest.  Or my romantic comedy to a horror contest. Or my five-act play to… well, any screenwriting contest. The same goes for short stories. Very few screenplay contests want to see short stories. Hard to believe, I know, but there it is.

The 50% scripts are also the result of me being incompetent and/or lazy. If I  don’t know how to spell, have only the faintest understanding of grammar, and no concept of story structure…  that’s a 50% script. Or if I send in a first draft with all its flat characters and wooden dialogue. Or if I don’t even bother to learn how to format a screenplay. Or if I wrote my screenplay under the assumption I’d be directing it from this draft.

If my script falls in that 50% group, the reader’s going to know very soon. And they’re going to Ecchh because a lot of contests require them to read the whole script… even if they know it’s not going to win. Most readers will toss a 50% script as soon as they can. Sometimes sooner, if they think they can get away with it.

The Writer Script
I’ve said this a dozen or so times. Do not write about writers. I did the math one year as a reader and it turned out almost 15% of the scripts I read had a writer as one of the main characters (yeah, I started keeping track of this stuff). When I was interviewing contest directors for Creative Screenwriting, one joked that if her contest banned scripts about writers they’d probably lose a quarter of their entries. More than a few professional editors have said they’ll toss a book manuscript if it opens with someone writing on their computer.

No one cares about the day-to-day struggles I go through as a writer. No one. Most of you don’t—you’re here to learn about the successes. Definitely not a bunch of script readers, many of whom are writers themselves. If I’m being sincere, I’m going to bore everyone (more on that in a bit). If I make up some idealized writing lifestyle, the readers will Ecchh over that because now I’m delving into fantasy.

Let’s assume they didn’t toss my script aside as soon as they saw the writer character. If they get to the end and said writer-character finally sells their book or screenplay and wins the Pulitzer/ Oscar/ whatever… the reader will crumple my script into a ball and burn it so nobody else will have  to read the damned thing. Then they will get my personal information from the contest director, hunt me down, and cram the ashes in my mouth.

And I probably won’t advance in the contest.

The Current Events Script
I’m going to go out on a limb here. If we could look at the pool of Nicholl submissions for this year, I’d bet we’d see a fair number of Olympic scripts.  Several of them would be about stray dogs in Sochi. Also a bunch of screenplays that tie somehow to health care laws. A few on government gridlock, too. And most of them were probably written in four weeks or less.

Y’see, Timmy, if I saw a news report about some fascinating nuance of the world and realized it’d make a great script… it’s a safe bet at least a thousand other aspiring screenwriters saw the same news story and had the same idea. Probably more with the way stories spread on the internet. Even if only half of those writers do anything with the idea, and even if only ten percent of those people are sending their script to the same contest as me… that’s still fifty people rushing out scripts about the exact same thing I am. Even if half of them are completely incompetent and the other half are just barely on par, it means the contest reader is going to be reading a dozen scripts just like mine. Ecchh. And that’s if we stick to a thousand as our base number.

Mine may be the best in the batch, of course, but it’s going to lose a lot of appeal because now it’s a tired, overdone idea. And none of us want to be thought of as the best take on a tired, overdone idea.

The Actor Script
When people are trying to be positive about this one, they’ll call it “a character script.” It means my screenplay is just a thin plot with a handful of over-detailed character sketches piled up in it. There’s usually lots of deep and meaningful multi-page conversations about mundane things, often held in a few basic locations, and very little action. Of any sort.

The thing is though, is there anything remotely interesting about a story that’s indistinguishable from the boring, everyday life we all lead? Is there anything impressive about me putting all that boring stuff down on paper? Is there any sort of challenge there, for me as a writer or you as a reader?


As it happens, this leads nicely into…

The True Script
A kissing cousin of the character script is the true script. On the cover or either the first or last page (sometimes several of these) I assure the reader this tale is based on true events involving me/ my parents/ my best friend/ someone I read about in a magazine article. These true events are often stressed to give a certain validity to what the reader is about to take in. After all, they can’t call my story or characters or dialogue unbelievable if it really happened, right?

Thing is, no one cares if my story is true or not. Nobody. Ecchh. They just care that it’s a good story and it’s well-told.  So my tale of prepubescent paraplegic drug addicts in 1990s Los Angeles needs to be as enjoyable—on some level—as a story about Neanderthal superheroes battling prehistoric lizard men in 1990s Los Angeles. Whether or not one of them’s a true story is irrelevant. In the end, I’m telling a story, and it’s either going to be good or it isn’t. Reality doesn’t enter into the equation for the reader, so it can’t for me.

The Formula Rom-Com
The man pursuing his dream girl realizes his best friend has been his real dream girl all along. A woman’s engaged to a condescending, controlling executive and then meets a poor artist and discovers he’s the real love of her life. Aphrodite/ Cupid/ an angel comes down to Earth on an assignment and falls in love.

Do any of these sound familiar? They should. Pretty much every one of them has been made into a dozen movies and a few thousand screenplays. Yeah, flipping the genders doesn’t make them any more original, sorry. Once it’s clear on page three this is a rom-com… Ecchh.

My romantic comedy has to be really spectacular and original to impress a reader. Again, it’s that sheer numbers thing. In four years of contest reading—a hundred romcoms, easy—I read one that stood out. Just one.

The Holiday Script
If you add in straight-to-DVD, movies of the week, and pretty much everything Shane Black‘s done, there’s a good argument to be made that holiday films are one of the best selling genres out there. However, just because my script is very sellable does not mean my script is very good. Or original. And if my contest is looking for good (see above), well…

The trick is to come up with something a contest reader hasn’t already seen again and again, to the point that they go Ecchh as soon as they see the mention of Halloween decorations. And—speaking from experience—they’ve seen most of it. They’ve Santa Claus quit, get fired, and get replaced by a temp, an elf, Mrs. Clause, his son, his daughter, his evil twin, his evil other personality, a robot, an alien, another holiday figure, another supernatural figure, Jesus. It’s all been done. The Easter Bunny has learned the true meaning of Easter, Cupid has learned the true meaning of love (see above… again), and Gobbles the Turkey has learned the true meaning of Thanksgiving. The hard way. Many, many times and in many, many ways.

There you are.  Seven very common types of scripts that will make a contest reader Ecchh. Probably more like eight or nine if you read between the lines a bit.

Again, I’m not saying I could never, ever win with one of these scripts. But I am saying that if I’m going to go this path I absolutely must knock it out of the park. No questions, no conditions, no exceptions.

Speaking of movies, next week I’d like to talk about the lessons we can all learn from that fine classic film Satan Met A Lady and its slightly more well-known remake, The Maltese Falcon.

Until then, go write.