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.

October 4, 2012 / 3 Comments

The First Thing That Comes to Mind

            I just wanted to do something quick this week, but hopefully you’ll all be impressed by the clever way I make this particular point.

            Grab a piece of paper and write these things down real quick.  Don’t think, don’t second-guess yourself, just scribble down the first things that come to mind, okay?  I want you to write down a television show about an island, a number from one to four, a Disney princess, and a vegetable.
            We’ll get back to that in a bit.
            Every now and then you’ll hear some guru talk about Jung or the zeitgeist or collective subconscious.  They’re pretty terms, but I’d guess four out of five times the people slinging them don’t really know what they mean.
            I think it’s much simpler than that.  Nowadays we’re all watching the same shows and movies and listening to the same music.  A lot of us are reading the same highly-recommended books.  Through the wonders of the internet, we can spend an hour each morning getting news updates from around the country and around the world.  Plus, all of us can discover the same Korean rap star within a week of each other.
            I’d guess at least ninety percent of you reading this had a basic Western education.  Most of us probably went to college for a few years, too.  We’ve compared banks and apartment-shopped and made budgets for either work or the home.  Maybe both. 
            We all share a lot of the same experiences, and we draw on those experiences to make the same decisions.  Because of this, we tend to be drawn to the same things—especially when you start dividing folks into fans of different genres and styles. 
            This is why you should never, ever go with the first idea you think of.  Because the odds are very good that at least a thousand other people just thought of it, too.  And half of those people are going to attempt something with that idea.
            I’ve talked about screenplay contests and some of the recurring concepts that made me and other readers cringe.  One of those was the Current Events script.  It’s a screenplay based off a recent, high-profile story that got a fair amount of news coverage.  They’re almost always rushed and, more to the point, there’s usually at least half-a-dozen of them about the same event.  And that’s just what one individual reader sees, so odds are there are a few hundred  of these scripts floating around each contest, all based off the same event. 
            A few months back I started toying with the idea of a new book, one that could possibly be the start of a new series.  Almost immediately, I came up with something that I thought was fairly clever and very open-ended.  I mentioned it to a friend over Labor Day weekend, though, and she said it sounded familiar.  She whipped out her Kindle, browsed Amazon for a minute, and came up with a name and title for me.
            Well, I got home and started checking it out.  It turns out the other author and I had both come up with the exact same premise.  Our main characters had the same background, the same life-changing event with the same results (and requiring the same medical breakthrough), and the same changes in their life because of it.  Different plots, but the story of our main character was almost identical.  The other author had just come up with it eighteen months earlier than me.
            We all get exposed to the same input and process it in similar ways.  That’s why the first thing that comes to mind is usually the thing that everyone else thought of, too.  Even if I think I’m a clever and exceedingly smart writer, I’m going to make the same first choices as everyone else.
            Don’t believe me?  Remember those things I asked you about up above?  I’m willing to bet that most of you wrote down LOST, three, Cinderella, and carrots. 
            What did I get?  Three out of four right?  I bet I got four out of four for some of you.
            When it comes to plot, try to avoid going with the first thing that comes to mind.  If you’re feeling gutsy, avoid the second and third, too.  That’s what makes a good writer—going beyond the obvious.
            Next time, unless I get another really cool request, I’m thinking I might talk a little bit about characters.
            Until then, go write.
August 4, 2011 / 4 Comments

Simpsons Did It!

A pop culture reference that’s so spot-on it’s not even funny.

Okay, it’s a little funny…

(General Disarray, go get the minions before they get lost…)

One of the big worries with creativity is wondering if you really are being creative. Is that clever new idea of yours something you came up with all on your own, or is it something you unwittingly borrowed from someone else? Maybe you skimmed over the back copy of a paperback in your local neighborhood bookstore or read a few spoiler-filled reviews on Amazon and your brain just filed it away. Worse yet, what if your clever story gets out there and then you discover five other people already had similar ideas. Now you just look like some hack plagiarist.

I’ve been involved in a bunch of discussions about stuff like this in the past few weeks. Has anyone crossed X with Y before? Have you ever seen this element used in that genre? What about that plot but in this setting?

The answer to all of these, alas, is yes.

Some guru-types like to drawl on about how there are only seven stories (or nine, or thirteen, depending on who’s selling what this week). While I think this is an oversimplification, it does point out an obvious truth. Most stories have things in common with other stories. That’s just the way of it. The same type of characters show up. The same situations arise. The same relationships form.

Here’s a random observation for you. When was the last time you met someone who didn’t remind you of someone else? Think about it for a minute. When we were little everything was new and fresh but as we got older we started to see patterns and similarities. A guy I met at a birthday party last weekend reminded me of a guy who lived across the hall from me in college. When I first met her, I thought my girlfriend looked a lot like one of my next-door neighbors. A production assistant I used to work with looks kind of like a sound mixer I know in San Diego. Another one reminded me of my cousin Chrissie crossed with a bit of Angelina Jolie (a very good mix, I have to say).

But those are all first impressions. As I delve deeper, I start to see the uniqueness of each person. The better I got to know them, the more Leo, Colleen, Russ, and Sarah became individuals and those superficial similarities dropped away.

Still, those initial generalities can be a bit bothersome. If there’s something else out there that’s similar to your work, should you worry about it?

Probably not.

Submitted for your approval is The Dueling Machine. It’s a 1969 sci-fi novel by multiple-Hugo-award winner Ben Bova. In the far, far future, a brilliant scientist has created a machine to help reduce hostility. It’s “a combination of electroencephalograph and autocomputer” which lets two or more people connect their minds through the machine and interact in an imaginary dream world that they create inside the machine. The story comes about when someone is killed during one of these “simulated” duels—is it possible that dying in the imaginary world could make someone die in the real world?

Hopefully this premise sounds a bit familiar to you. It should because it’s a big chunk of the plot to The Matrix movies. And The 13th Floor. Also the Lawnmower Man films. Plus there’s a few books like Cybernetic Samurai and Snow Crash and Giant’s Star. And that television show VR5 that was on for a while. And about a hundred Star Trek episodes where people get trapped on the now-deadly holodeck, because the holodeck safety systems are apparently made of cobwebs and wet tissue paper. Heck, you’ve all probably got a dozen more at your fingertips, don’t you?

For the record, there are also dozens of books and movies and television shows featuring vampires in space (one’s actually called The Space Vampires—it was the basis for the movie LifeForce). And zombies in the old west. And new takes on time travel, space travel, politics, Jekyll and Hyde, all that stuff.

Now, this doesn’t mean that most stories copy other stories. We all draw from a lot of the same sources, so our thoughts are going to follow a lot of the same paths. But even on those paths we’re all going to march to the beat of our own drummer, so to speak. We’re also going to dress differently, bring different things with us, ask different people to come along, and we’re all probably heading down that given path for different reasons.

Y’see, Timmy, we put our own stamp on everything we do. If I did a modern version of Dracula and you did a modern version of Dracula, neither of us would end up writing Salem’s Lot, which was Stephen King’s modern version of Dracula. You might stick with Europe, but I’m probably going to set mine in southern California. We’d have our own ideas and notions and way of looking at it, just like Mr. King did.

Now, there’s a downside to this apprehension, too, and it’s kind of similar to the people who won’t write anything because they’re too busy learning how to write. Sometimes we—yes we—get so caught up in worrying if something is original that we grind to a halt trying to prove it isn’t. This desperate need to avoid being a copycat brings things to a dead halt.

True story —I was working on a book a few years back (right before I was inspired to start Ex-Heroes, in fact) called Mouth. As I was typing away, I suddenly came up with the coolest way to explain teleportation ever. I mean, this was Stephen Hawking-level brilliant. It was, if you’ll pardon the phrase, sheer elegance in its simplicity. I typed up a quick scene where Character A explained it this way to Character B, read through it, and realized it was even cleverer than that.

Too clever, in fact, for a guy like me to come up with it. It was too clean. Too perfect.

In a panic, I wracked my brain trying to figure out where I’d heard it before. Because I must’ve seen this somewhere. Online? In a comic book? All I was reading at the time was Amazing Spider-Man and that was all packed full of “Civil War” nonsense. Maybe a television show? What had we gotten from Netflix in the past few months?

I asked my girlfriend to read it. I figured she might recall whatever this source was, because I kept drawing a blank. She went through the chapter, got to the questionable explanation, and loved it. When I asked her where she’d seen it before, she couldn’t remember ever seeing it. After I pressed her for a bit and she re-read it again, she admitted it was vaguely like the explanation of “tessering” in Madeline L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle In Time, but only in that it took what was plainly a very complex idea and boiled it down to an extremely simple explanation.

In other words, it was all mine. But I wasted a week worrying over whether or not I’d copied it.

Do a quick look at your chosen field. Make sure no one’s done something exactly like your idea. Then just write. Your own style and vocabulary and characters will give it a flavor all its own.

Like the Buddha says, don’t sweat the small stuff.

Next time, if I don’t get any suggestions, I may have to fall back on spelling.

Until then, like I just said, go write.