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The Whole Point
by Sean Corrigan
Its been said that if you can do anything other than write, then do it. Life is too short to meander down such an ungratifying, solitary road. (I happen to like solitude its not that Im a misanthrope, I just hate people) But if writing is the one thing that impels you, inspires you, instigates you yada, yada, then commit yourself. And write. You dont have to be good, just write something. Ill take the suckjob writer who has mass-produced five McScripts writing every day over the guy who claims to be a writer because he wrote thirty great pages over the course of seven years.
I need to write. Its cheaper than therapy and takes less time than prison. (And my penis isnt long enough to be a porn star) And although I havent quite made a living from it, Im close enough to speak about it like I have a clue what Im talking about.
After three and a half years of pretty consistent writing Ive managed to churn out nine screenplays, five plays (shorts and a one-act), and two television spec scripts. Every one of my scripts has placed quarterfinalist or better in some writing contest. I placed 8th out of 3200 in last years Austin Film Festival, recently won the Scriptapalooza television writing contest, and have had three plays produced (two Off-Broadway). Dont be too impressed, I still do temp work. In the last three years Ive come to realize this - nobody knows shit, and anyone who claims to, knows less.
Sure there are a few basic principles to follow: format is essential.
In my first script, I wrote all of my characters dialogue in different colors. REALLY. (imagine trying to print a script in color now imagine chafing your genitalia with heavy grade sandpaper I prefer the latter) No, I wasnt on drugs well, actually I was, but that didnt influence my decision to use color. I just wanted to be original. Do not reinvent the wheel. Hollywood likes formula, it likes clichés, it likes predictable screenwriting (which is why amazing scripts like The Usual Suspects go through so much hell to get made it requires thought). But, most importantly, Hollywood likes the format the way it is. Dont get me wrong, I eventually became a format company-man, and now castigate new writers who misuse their parentheticals. Other errors: when I first started, I felt the need to use sexy brightly colored cardstock with sexier fonts. Waste of time. Use bland, white cardstock and standard Courier font. Simple, boring, conformist.
In terms of the actual formatting dimensions how far from the left margin does this go, how far from the top margin does that go I have no idea I use screenwriting software. I could have told you three years ago, but now Im a drone, accepting whatever the software gods tell me. I do have this one bit of advice for serious screenwriters
Buy software. If you cant afford it, steal it. If you cant afford it and have high morals, dont eat for a month. If you think you dont need it, then youre not serious about being a screenwriter, so go lie down in traffic. The software will save you hours and hours. My first script took three months mostly because it took forever trying to format (especially rewriting) on Word or Works. I can write a strong first draft in about a month now, and the software is a huge part of that. I recommend Final Draft, by the way.
If you are just starting to write know this: your first three scripts will suck. If you havent written three scripts, then you cant understand. I wouldnt have believed it myself. My first script The Nature of Duplicity (that should be a sign right there never use a word in your title that Hollywood executives cant pronounce or dont know the definition of) was very good for a first script. But when I finished, I swear that I wouldnt have sold it for less that a million dollars. I kid you not. It still is a very good first script and ended up being a quarterfinalist in the Breckenridge Film Festival and a semifinalist in the Chesterfield Writers Project, but I would sell it today for $10 okay $9 fine, buy me a Big Mac. The point obviously, writing is an acquired skill and will be refined over time.
Heres my whole point of writing this:
Nobody knows anything. Everyone has a different opinion. And opinions are like gallbladders they have a purpose, but no one really knows what they are, so we discard them when convenient. I know people who think that Schindlers List was horrible (people in the business who know film - who work in film - who make money working in film), whereas I believe that it and The Bridge on the River Kwai may be the finest films ever made. Perfect example: Austins local film critic Chris Garcia gave that garbage John Carpenter movie Vampires a higher rating than Saving Private Ryan (in case youve never met Chris, he really hated Saving Private Ryan- as did William Goldman, probably the finest screenwriter whos ever lived). Yet, the rest of the world, including myself, embraced it as one of the best films of the year. The lesson is dont be disheartened when someone doesnt like your writing. Most people outside the business arent willing to sit through something thought provoking like Schindlers List they prefer to watch bad movies that blow shit up.
Example two: After placing in the Austin Film Festival (in my opinion, the best screenwriting contest in the country), I received numerous inquiries from production companies about my winning script. They also wanted to know what else I had that they could read (I didnt offer my first three). Well, two of my better scripts entail themes of Hollywood (think of a story about Lynda Obst) or the mob (but in a dark-comedy Sopranos kind of way). Well, eight months ago, a producer tells me that nobody in Hollywood is reading either of those types of scripts. "They dont sell." Of course, this consummate insider failed to predict that Sopranos would receive seventeen thousand Emmy and Golden Globe nominations. Dont try to predict the trends and dont listen to the idiot who claims that an entire genre of scripts is not being purchased. Someone out there knows better, so just keep knocking on doors.
One last idiot analogy: I entered a one-act playwriting contest in Iowa (thats what I get)- with a play that has been a finalist in two contests and will be produced May 11-14, 2000 at the Little Theatre of Alexandria outside of Washington D.C. (Im venting). The contest consisted of ten judges who actually gave written feedback and scored every submission. I received many high marks, one perfect mark (100), and then a stick in the eye from a sorority girl who was probably serving community time for a DWI (my apologies to all sorority girls who have not served community time for a DWI). I say she was a sorority girl because of the big flowery, bubbly handwriting with tiny annoying hearts over the Is. (I realize that Im generalizing- it could have been an 87 year-old farmer) Anyway, had this individuals score (33 out of 100) been eliminated, I would have won the contest and $500. ($500 converts into 1.3 weeks of temp work.) Anyway, the brilliant play is called Just A Couple Guys Talkin. It is written very much in the vein of David Mamets American Buffalo or Sexual Perversity in Chicago a wry comedy about the contradictions found in conversation. Nothing more. Her infinitely wise analysis of my play was <Ah Mah Gawd> "I didnt like the way the characters kept talking in circles." ------IDIOT!!! Thats the point! Thats the only point! Its (everybody at once) JUST A COUPLE GUYS TALKIN. Hence the fucking title! I wanted to write her back and explain about these two guys named Abbott and Costello and this skit called Whos On First, but I was concerned that her brain might melt all over her daddys BMW.
One last "we each have different tastes": There was a script submitted by a very talented female writer- (I wont mention her name or the title because Im paranoid about being tortured by other writers looking for material for their new scripts) -it was a finalist in the comedy division of last years Austin Film Festival. Im not exactly sure how many entries were in the comedy division (there are thousands in the entire contest). So the writer placed in the top five out of hundreds, maybe thousands of scripts. This same script was entered in Screenplayoff (a very innovative screenwriting contest) which has every script placed into sixteen-script brackets. Then, from each bracket, around five scripts are chosen to compete in a NCAA Final Four type of head-to-head competition. This script that Im speaking of did not even place in the top five out of sixteen. Yet, it placed in the top five out of possibly thousands in the Austin Film Festival. Is Screenplayoff that much more competitive as a contest? Of course not. It was simply a different reader with a different sensibility. Again, some people didnt like Schindlers List.
So, what limited wisdom have I imparted? People dont know shit, and anyone who claims to, knows less. And since I seem to be making claims, I probably know less.