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I shared some writing advice today with my friend, Erin. I'm no expert, but I sure have opinions. On everything.
Immediately after I read a great story from NPR: Danny Trejo: From the Big House to the Big Screen.
Danny's final quote struck me:
"When you talk about my big break, you know, I got a few of them in my life. Everything good that has ever happened to me has happened as a direct result of helping someone else," Trejo says. "Everything."It inspired me to write this post.
One of the questions I hear a lot, and something I posed myself many years ago, is "How do I get started at screenwriting? Take a class? Get a degree? Read some books? Read some scripts? Just write?"
The answer, of course, is "How should I know? I'm not your fucking teacher."
The real answer is: there is no wrong answer.
Cop out, right? Not really.
Everyone learns differently. All I can share is what's worked for me.
I list this first because nothing teaches you more than reading lots, and lots, and lots of scripts!
For TV, Google - TV Scripts is my absolute favorite site in the whole wide world. Here you will find PDFs of pilot and episode scripts from the US & UK for dramas and comedies. I cannot recommend this site highly enough.
SimplyScripts is another site for TV and film scripts.
The site nofilmschool shares Oscar-nominated scripts every year. Here are some from 2014.
And I use an app called Scripted on my iPad where I can also download PDF scripts.
This is just a sprinkling of sites.
Write, write, write! I spent so much time learning and reading and talking about writing, I wasn't sure if I'd ever actually write! I finally did.
Just write. It's OK to suck. It's OK to fail. The only way to learn this is write, write, write. It's all practice. It's all learning. And rewriting is where the serious mastery comes in. You can't get to your rewrite without your draft!
Seriously, you don't share anything until it's ready so there is NO REASON not to write. In fact, I should be writing right now.
I like online classes. They give me structure. It puts my goals on a calendar. I get assignments. I interact with other students. I already have a degree (BA in Mass Media / Management) so I wasn't interested in another one. Or a masters, in anything. But I love learning.
Here's what I've taken and why it worked for me:
In 2010, I flew to LA and took Steve Kaplan's two-day Comedy Intensive. Other than blogs, I hadn't written a single script page. But this class was awesome! I learned so much about comedy, and really got the writing bug. I also walked out with two pieces of advice: 1) do some improv, which I already had and 2) join a writers group, which I did as soon as I returned home. Steve offers this class several times a year, and he also put a lot of his teaching into a book: The Hidden Tools of Comedy. He's also a really nice guy.
In 2011, I took Beginning Television Writing taught online through Screenwriters University. It's taught by William Rabkin (TV writer and producer) and author of a book I highly recommend called Writing the Pilot. The online class is only four weeks long. But it got me to pick a TV drama to "spec" -- writing on speculation for an existing show that will never, ever see the low-def/high-def/cathode-ray-tube shining light of a screen but demonstrates you can write a TV script for someone else's show. I chose ABC's Castle, for its mix of drama and comedy. And I thought my personal style of sarcasm would blend well in the fun banter found on that show.
Then I brainstormed Castle story ideas and Bill & I narrowed it down to one (his feedback was invaluable). And then I went to outline - something most writers need to do (and many networks require) before going straight to the script. The outline is where you work out your entire story (actually multiply threaded A, B and sometimes C stories) and fix the holes/issues/unseen traps.
After the class was over, I wrote the actual script. Probably took me a year, which is way too slow for TV, but I was working full time and love to procrastinate. And since I wrote this over two years ago, I need to rewrite it to align with the current timeline of the show, and because I'm sure it's absolute shit and needs several rounds of polish to make it better.
In 2013, I took the ProSeries through Hal Croasmun's ScreenwritingU. My focus is TV writing, and this six-month program is geared toward screenplays (film), but the many, many lessons were invaluable. Lessons every day! Writing assignments every day! And you learn to give and receive feedback. It helped me a lot in creating characters, subtext/symbolism, scene-writing, idea generation, etc. I came out of it with a screenplay draft and connections to lots of wonderful writers who are alumni of ALL of the ProSeries through the years.
My screenplay Inside Out needs a full rewrite, because I came up with a better antagonist, and because my skills have grown, so fresh rewrites will only make this script better. It's also another writing sample, and it's marketable.
You can also take individual classes at ScreenwritersU for particular areas, and they're always offering free classes (2- to 3-hour teleconferences).
There are lots of books out there. Beware! Not of nefarious writers, but of the time suck. Books explaining writing, rules and methods helped me a lot. Books explaining the business helped from a marketing perspective, which you'll eventually need to do, but I got caught up in "What if I made it?! How does this business work? What if I made it?!" Make sure writing is your main focus, and reading supports it.
ALSO, remember to read stories, novels, short-stories, scripts. When I read a novel now I appreciate the work, the creativity, the voices, the characters, and mostly just the enjoyment.
In addition to the titles already mentioned above, a few writing books I particularly enjoyed were:
The TV Writer's Workbook by Ellen Sandler
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder
Successful Television Writing by Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin
Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias
TV Writing Toolkit by Jen Grisanti
SCRIPTCHAT on Twitter
I cannot say enough about #ScriptChat, an online meetup every Sunday night at 9 PM ET on Twitter. I found this godsend before I went to LA for Steve Kaplan's Comedy Intensive.
For one hour every week, writers of all skill levels meet online in a "chat-room" that curates every tweet using the #ScriptChat hashtag in a live discussion. I enter the chat using tchat.
ScriptChat! <<--Go directly to their web site for all the details. They have book links, script site links, transcripts of past chats, a calendar of weekly topics/guests. The first Sunday of every month is TV focused! And they have LOTS of great guests.
I have met (online and now in person) writers who have changed my life. Jeanne Bowerman and Jamie Lee Scott, just to name two wonderful friends. I even won a mentorship from Zac Sanford, one of the moderators and now a friend, free of charge for six months that he graciously extended to a year.
And if you're nervous about chatting, don't be. You can always "listen" from the sidelines and no one even knows you're there. You can jump in if and whenever you want.
Join a Writers Group
I was fortunate enough to meet some serious writers in Baltimore who share honest feedback, improve with every script, and share so many of my interests. When I returned from my trip to LA in 2010, the first thing I did was search online for a local screenwriters group. Meetup.com actually listed one with a few hundred members: the Baltimore Screenwriters Coffee Club. They meet up once a month in the city and have different guests and open discussion. They also, quite often, ask writers to bring 10 pages of their script for a table read. You get feedback this way. It's wonderful!
I happened to bring my first, and only, 10 pages ever written of my Castle spec one night.
Another life-changing event. Two guys, Chris Mueller and Mike Brennan, happened to be there. They heard my Castle pages and approached me after the meeting. "Hey, we're TV writers too." And so began our own writers group, and friendship.
Chris created the web series Click! and invited me to join as a writer with him, Mike and one other writer, Steve Burgess. Long story short, that's how I got my first IMDB credit!
Watch TV and Films
Kind of obvious, and also can be a very tempting distraction, but in addition to reading scripts, you really do need to watch TV shows and films to complete your education. It's true you'll never watch TV or film the same again, and you will become that guy or gal, who points out the tropes, glaring errors, lazy fixes, broken rules, and brilliant execution. But you will still enjoy it. It just might be alone. ;-)
Back to my pilot!