The 2015 Austin Film Festival!

AFFWhile I may have missed last year’s Austin Film Festival (AFF) due to having a baby, I consider myself an annual attendee. Well this year is special for me, because I will be a panelist. I look forward to seeing you all there, and especially at the barbecue! To see my panels, click here. 
Here are some highlights I’m seeing for this year’s festival:

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Your Script is Terrible.


Why is the night never bright and calm?

Was that mean? I’m sorry to say, it’s true.

It’s a lousy script. The characters, they’re flat boring and predictable. The plot!? Trite! Your script has second act problems, sooo many second act problems. Your protagonist is obviously just you, only doing things and saying things you’re unwilling and afraid to actually do or say in real life. And your ending? Don’t even get me started on your ending.

Yes, I’m being overly harsh. But, I’m making a point. My simple point is that you should give up on that script and move on to writing a new one. And here’s why:

If you’re lucky, some day you’ll end up in a room pitching your idea to some executive, or someone else with a lot of money who can make your idea a reality. You’ll pitch your heart out, you’ll give it everything you have, and you’ll nail it. That person will look up at you, nod, and they’ll say…

“So, what else do you got?”

I know it will happen to you, because it’s happened to me. They didn’t like your first idea. Maybe they HATED it. Still, they’re willing to hear another one, see another one… you do have another one ready, right? RIGHT?!

Now, I will admit, if you’ve finished a script you should be proud. Most people don’t do that. Most people let it sit unfinished on their computer for years. Something they’ll always get around to. Yet, now that it’s done, it seems no matter what you do, the important things – fame and glory, money and jobs, wine and immortalitydon’t seem to be happening. No one wants to buy your script!

Why is it not selling? Why are they not beating down your door? Maybe you’re just not lucky, maybe you don’t have the right friends and connections, or maybe… the script is bad.

That can’t be! It’s your love, your one true plot. The only good idea you’ve ever had and will ever have!

If you’re only going to ever have one good idea, why do you want to write? If it was just to get that one good idea out, bam, done, good work! You did it! If you want to write for a living you need to be able to churn ideas out. Not like some writing mill, but a new one every now and then may be required of you.

Relax. Take a deep breath. Just try this. Stop putting all your time into trying to sell your script. Let it sit in the back drawer. Let it get some dust. Let it just be done for a while.

I’ll say it again, start a new script. Think about what you didn’t like with the last one, think about what could be better. Think about what things you love in fiction and what things you hate. Write something that surprises you. Write in a genre you’ve never considered writing in before. Finish THAT script.

It will probably suck as well, but when you’ve finished two lousy scripts, you can finish three. When you’ve finished three, you can finish five. When you’ve finished five, you can finish ten.

When you’ve got ten scripts, well, one of those is probably decent isn’t it? Now when you DO get that moment and someone that matters is willing to look at your work, you don’t just have your one desperate cry in the dark, you have a grand ocean of writing. You can show them all sorts of things. Maybe even something they’ll like.

The point I’m trying to make is that good writing comes from dedicated editing. Great writing comes from practice, and a willingness to keep trying.

Now the less harsh truth:  your script probably isn’t that bad, but if you’re hung up on trying to get it produced, you’re focused on that and you’re not writing. Move on to the next piece. That’s the great thing about writing, you can always come back to something later.

So go, write so many terrible scripts that one is accidentally amazing. Unless you’re much more talented than me (and you might be) that’s the only way to ever actually make something great.

Thank you. I’ll take that under consideration.

I’m afraid I find your suggestion to be most illogical (RIP Mr Nimoy)

This post originally appeared on the Maximum Z blog on Feb 27, 2015 

I had a great coffee-chat conversation with another writer earlier this week. Among the many topics we discussed was the fine art of giving and receiving notes.

When you give notes, you want to be equally helpful and critical (without being mean or condescending about it). A lot of the time, the person seeking notes is a peer or someone with pretty much a level of experience more or less equal to yours, so they know how to interpret the notes, and don’t take anything personally.

They also realize the only way to improve is to learn what mistakes they made, make the proper adjustments, and make a mental note to not do it again from here on in. This is an essential skill that takes time to get the hang of.

But what about the writer who asks you to read their just-finished first script? “Don’t worry. Be as brutally honest as you need to be. I can take it.”

Are you sure about that?

If you’ve been doing this for a while, you’re quick to recognize what works and what doesn’t in their script, and you make the appropriate notes and suggestions.

I’ve encountered almost the entire spectrum of reactions from newer writers, ranging from “These notes are fantastic! Thank you so much!” to “Hmph. You obviously don’t recognize my genius” (I’m paraphrasing that one). You’ve probably heard similar things, but hey, at least you tried to help.

Then there’s being on the receiving end. It’s not easy to hand your baby over to somebody so they can find fault with it, but again, it’s a necessary part of the process. Many’s the time I have felt my pulse quicken in the moments just before the comments were unleashed.

As stated above, if the notes are from someone on an equal level to me, I appreciate the positive things they have to say, but am more interested in their critical comments (which doesn’t automatically mean they’re negative). I may be having trouble with how to fix a particular problem, so outside suggestions are definitely appreciated. Sometimes it’s an “Of course!” moment, sometimes it’s a “Huh?” I may not always agree with what they say, but it may spark the thought of a new approach. Anything helps.

On the other side of the coin is getting comments from writers with less experience than you. You’ve written ten scripts, and they’ve written one, maybe two. How much value can you place on what they have to say? They don’t have the benefit of experience, so their comments may come across as uninformed or focusing on the wrong things. The best you can do is take what you think might be useful and discard/ignore the rest, reminding yourself that they’ll learn over time.

The whole point of notes is to help make the script better, and both note-giver and receiver need to approach this from that viewpoint. It’s not the time for the note-giver to say “This is how I would do it,” and the receiver can’t get ultra-defensive and overly possessive of their work.

Once the notes are given, the responsibility falls on the writer to interpret and use them as they see fit.

Sharing Lessons Learned: Writing Screenplays

Writing ScreenplaysHow many times have you heard a new writer talk about their struggles, knowing that you have overcome those same hurdles? Or that same writer wonders what screenwriting conferences or events they should go to, and you’ve been. You know which ones suck and which ones are awesome. You have some experience that aspiring writers want, and I would like to announce a call to arms to share that information. That’s what we’re doing here at the Screenwriting Grotto, and we hope you all will find it useful and inspiring.


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Writers Guild Foundation Veterans Writing Retreat

Episode-39Justin-SloanEvery spring I am reminded of the great time I had a couple years back when I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the Writers Guild Foundation’s (WGF) Veterans Writing Retreat. If you are a military veteran and are at all interested in writing, this WGF event is a must.


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