Beginning today, I’m going to post my status on my various works in progress. The goal is to help measure my time and productivity toward completing my various projects. Rather than set a specific word count or page count for each day, I will simply post what I have accomplished by the end of the day. Some days this may be nothing, sometimes it may be a lot. We’ll see how it goes.
Hilo, Hawaii chief of detectives Koa Kane has a talent for digging up secrets – and keeping them buried when needed.
Kane is tested on both fronts in Treachery Times Two (Oceanview Publishing, $27.95, 9781608094646), the fourth in Robert McCaw’s suspense-filled mystery series.
On the one hand, Kane is undaunted in his quest to apprehend whoever killed a woman whose mutilated body is discovered during a volcanic earthquake. On the other, he is determined to keep his own murderous misdeed years ago secret.
McCaw and Kane are both new to me, so I was a little hesitant about diving into a series that was already four books old. But McCaw managed his character’s introduction and set up the book’s premise so well that my fears were put at ease.
I was hooked by the first case when McCaw reeled me in all the way with the second.
Thirty years ago,Anthony Hazzard orchestrated the murder of Kane’s father at a sugar mill where they worked. Kane followed Hazzard to a remote hunting cabin on the island and confronted Hazzard, who retaliated, forcing Kane to fatally strike him with a fire iron. Kane staged the scene to look as if Hazzard had committed suicide.
But now, Bobby Hazzard has come to the big island in search of answers about his grandfather’s death. With a powerful senator backing him, Kane has no recourse but to cooperate and reopen the investigation into Hazzard’s death, even though it could point the finger at him.
“He had come to believe his suicide ruse had succeeded. He felt safe. Seeing Bobby Hazzard, his fear had come roaring back like a spike through his heart.”
When a fingerprint left at the scene of the cabin identifies another man as a suspect, and the DA’s office seeks an indictment, Kane faces another moral dilemma: Does he let another man take the fall for a crime he committed?
“He saw his future as tenuous,” McCaw writes. “He could not, under any circumstances, let an innocent man go to jail for his crime.”
The internal struggle Kane experiences in the novel is enough to compel readers to keep turning pages alone. At one point, Kane even contemplates suicide.
But McCaw doesn’t let up. There’s still the initial case to be resolved.
After identifying the victim, Tiger Baldwin, as an employee at X-CO, a government defense contractor on the island, company officials prove less than willing to cooperate with his investigation. Before long, Kane’s efforts attract the attention of the FBI who are conducting their own probe into stolen plans for a secret weapon.
Kane’s sense of duty leads him to unwanted truths about a longtime friend as well as his own hidden past. Whether his desire to see justice done is enough to make amends for his own murderous past remains to be seen.
As its title suggests, Treachery Times Two is a riveting, double-edged mystery. Whether you enjoy good, old-fashioned police work or a moral tale of right and wrong, this one’s got it all.
I’ve definitely got the inevitable book five in the series on my radar.
After listening to countless hours of interviews, panels, and presentations courtesy of my virtual pass to the 28th Annual Austin Film Festival last week, I was left wanting more.
By that, I mean I want more substance.
Don’t get me wrong. The various stories from incredibly talented writers, producers, showrunners, and directors were at times inspirational, awe-inducing, and chockful of valuable insights about breaking into and thriving in this singularly peculiar institution called screenwriting.
Austin Film Festival is regarded as having the best writers conference on the planet and for good reason. The staff do a phenomenal and, sometimes, thankless job coordinating dozens of speakers and panelists over four intense days every October for hundreds of writers. The best of the best screenwriters – everyone from David Self (Road to Perdition, Thirteen Days) to Jeff Nichols (Mud, Midnight Special, Loving), from Derek Kolstad (John Wick trilogy, Nobody) to Glen Mazzara (The Walking Dead, The Shield) — appear to unselfishly share their wisdom, timeless advice, and incredible stories about the business.
Earlier today, Austin sent out an email survey to attendees – real and virtual – to ask how they did. And while there was plenty of reason to give kudos, the truth is I was left longing for something more.
The parade of speakers touched on everything from persevering in your craft, telling the story only you can tell, the importance of making connections (hard to do in a virtual environment), and, of course, doing the work.
All valuable advice, but after a while, it all sounded the same.
I was left wondering, where was the drama?
Where were the impassioned debates over posting loglines on Twitter for all the world to see?
Where were the answers about whether to use FADE IN or bolding your sluglines?
Where were the conversations about screenwriters’ rights and pay rates in the face of changing mediums?
There’s plenty of “drama” on #screenwriting Twitter from week to week. All the AFF organizers must do is monitor it and ask their pool of panelists to expound on it. Wouldn’t it be impressive if next year AFF assembled a Screenwriting Tribunal of experts to hear arguments pro and con and then issue a decisive end-all ruling on the debates?
Of course, I jest. Everyone knows there are no rules in screenwriting.
But it would be fun, wouldn’t it? And it might help break up the monotony of the interviews a bit.
Speaking of fun, I would be remiss if I did not mention my favorite panelist/speaker for the week. Meg LeFauve, who wrote Inside Out and Captain Marvel, marveled her crowd with an informative and thoroughly entertaining discussion about writing character emotions.
Regular readers of this blog will recall my earlier entry touting my love of #Screenwriting Twitter. Yesterday, there was an abundance of love – and a bit of drama — over on the platform: Hundreds of writers pushing their screenplays upon an unsuspecting world!
In case you missed it, it was an event called #ScreenPit.
The idea was simple: Post tweets containing the title and a one-sentence description of your screenplay with the hope that a director, producer, agent, or manager would see it and want to read the completed screenplay. Or even better, they might actually want to buy your script or hire you to write a script.
Each tweet would include a set of hashtags to help further identify the screenplay you were tweeting about, from its genre to the type of production itself (whether it was a for a full-length feature movie, a limited series, TV pilot, or short film).
The screenwriting world answered the challenge.
Throughout the twelve-hour challenge, tweet after tweet scrolled by advertising everything from action-adventures to horror to serious dramas and hilarious comedies. Whether it was a haunting story about witches or an emotionally moving story about aging parents, you could find a logline for that screenplay.
The ideas were virtually limitless.
Some of the ideas, admittedly, were not particularly original. Some of the loglines were a bit rough and failed to convey exactly what the story was about (hey, it’s hard to condense 100 pages of screenplay into one sentence!). But some were incredible in both their descriptions and originality.
In reading them, you couldn’t help but sit up and imagine the screenplay flashing across the silver screen as a movie someday.
All of them represented the boundless pool of talent across the world and stories begging to be told.
Taking the plunge
I was initially a bit hesitant about joining in.
In the first place, there was no guarantee that anybody in a position of filmmaking power would even see it. If you have ever been on Twitter, you know how quickly your Twitter feed flashes by. If you blink, you’ve missed it. Even a hashtag search resulted in an endless sea of scrolling tweets.
The organizers invited a slew of top agencies, managers, and other movers and shakers in the industry to participate, but there were no clear commitments.
Instead, many warned against the idea.
Hollywood, you see, is afraid to look at unsolicited loglines or ideas because they fear it could lead to lawsuits from those claiming their ideas were stolen. Since you cannot copyright an idea, doing so is akin to giving away your fantastic movie idea to anyone else who wants to use it.
So, the whole idea of posting loglines would possibly fall on deaf ears.
Despite all of that, hundreds of screenwriters posted their loglines anyway. One after another after another.
I jumped in and posted a few of my own.
Why not? I thought. There are few paths into Hollywood as it is.
You can write your scripts, enter them into contests and hope against all odds that a reader likes it enough to send it up the ladder to the next level; you can cold query managers, agents, and producers in hopes that someone might give in and say, “OK, send it to me and I’ll take a look;” or you can network back and forth at social events and through social media in search of that one elusive person that will even look at your script.
Or you can post your logline to Twitter and cross your fingers. Who’s to say one method is more effective than the other? And, believe it or not, there have been Twitter success stories.
Writing a screenplay is a risky venture regardless. You put hours and hours of your life, your blood, sweat, tears, and every emotion you have into the product. Why? Because you have a story to tell and a story that only you can tell.
It’s a passion. It’s a curse. It’s a fool’s game.
So, why not play it? Why not take a chance? Try a new thing. Try something different.
#ScreenPit was that thing, and hundreds of screenwriters agreed to take the leap.
I posted a tweet commending the screenwriters on their trove of ideas and imploring Hollywood to take a chance on something or someone new. With the constant parade of reboots, remakes, and rehashes flooding the screen (big and small), and with the plethora of streamers in need of content, it is clear Hollywood needs people, ideas, and scripts, and I am not the only one that feels that way. My tweet obviously resonated, drawing more than 350 “likes” and nearly retweets over the next 24 hours!
The drama begins
By mid-afternoon, the naysayers in the screenwriting world began to grow more vocal. They began lashing out at those posting their loglines as foolish and amateurs.
The drama had begun.
Organizers of the event point out that authors have a similar Twitter day four times a year called #PitMad, in which they post the premise to their novels or books in hopes of attracting publishers or agents.
Proponents counter that book publishing and screenwriting are two distinct things, two vastly different industries. What works for one won’t necessarily work for the other.
Organizers say the event presents an even playing field for those who may not have the money or resources to enter the countless screenwriting contests or paid pitch events out there.
Proponents counter that contests, in the least, help sort through the riffraff and highlight the standout scripts and writers without having to wade through an endless slush pile.
As @TheZeusJuice put it in his Twitter HOT TAKE: “If all these execs were SO willing to read our stuff, we wouldn’t NEED to #ScreenPit anything.” His thread includes a few more choice statements worth reading if you want to check it out.
Jessica Kane @jesskane31 also has an interesting take on the controversy.
For better or worse
Now that the dust has settled, we are left to wonder if it was all worth it. I picked up dozens of new Twitter followers and followed dozens of others. That’s all part of that old networking thing, right?
Did #ScriptPit get anyone interest from the powers that be? The organizers are trying to audit its success now, as well as consider ways to improve on future events.
At the very least, I got a few “likes” on a couple of my loglines and a bunch of new followers. No one’s been knocking down the door to option my scripts or sign me as a writer. Not yet, anyway.
But my tweets are out there. My scripts are out there. I’m putting myself out there.
What does horror mean to you? Is it the loss of a son or a daughter or loved one to some tragedy? The stranger on the street? The person you thought you could trust, only to learn they’ve betrayed you? The deal you cannot rescind? Is it the monster under the bed? The dark unknown?
Not everyone is afraid of the same thing.
Horror is subjective, our fears deeply personal. Sometimes even irrational.
Naturally, you may not be terrified of all the stories served up in the +Horror Library+ series, but you’re virtually guaranteed to cringe from some of the selections. First published by Cutting Block Books and editor R.J. Cavender, the seven-volume series has been re-edited, redesigned, reformatted and reissued under the Dark Moon imprint from two-time Bram Stoker Award winner Eric J. Guignard, who promises to keep the best contemporary indie horror alive with a forthcoming volume.
He was kind enough to send me e-books of each volume in the series to date to review, so let’s dive in!
First, know that none of the authors here are household names.
That doesn’t mean they are not talented wordsmiths with vivid, and sometimes twisted imaginations that will make you quiver, gasp, or flinch in fear. A search on Amazon reveals some have gone on to publish additional works and, if you pick up enough horror literature, you are bound to see their names crop up every once in a while on the table of contents pages.
You never know what you’re going to get in a non-themed collection like this – there are thirty stories alone in Volume One — whether it’s a bizarre alien encounter with sluglike beasts or a grisly story of dismemberment and torture.
Fair warning:Some works are exceedingly graphic and tackle any number of taboos from sex to torture, incest to child abuse, and more.
Cavender makes an unusual decision in leading off the book with one of its grisliest, unnerving selections, “Palo Mayombe in Matamoros” by Boyd E. Harris. The story offers one possible, terrifying scenario accounting for the 1,100 random deaths of taxi drivers throughout the world over ten years beginning in 1997 in what’s touted as a piece of creative nonfiction. Harris, who goes on to co-edit a later volume in the +Horror Library+ series, pulls no punches as he graphically depicts the torture and dismemberment of the story’s main character. With no plot to speak of and no escape for the main character, it’s a torture to read.
In fact, if you were not a stalwart reader of horror, you’d close the book here. But in doing so, you would miss much more interesting and haunting stories – and authors — deserving of your time.
As odd as it may be to admit, that’s part of the fun of a collection like this: reading an adventure that challenges your sensibilities or morals, forces you to confront your fears, and dares you to look upon the darker side of humanity.
Just remember, if you don’t like one story, skip on ahead to the next.
Like many anthologies, some stories naturally stand out more than others.
Take, for instance, “Oren’s Axe” by Jed Verity, in which the titular character discovers a grotesque oddity at his doorstep in the dead of night. Wracked by disgust and fear at the sight of the thing, Oren is moved by its plight and surprises the reader by showing his compassion for the thing, first by snipping away a set of sutures over its lips, and second by giving it fresh water to slake its thirst. But as noble as his intentions are, as often happens in the case of horror stories, he is shocked by the thing’s sudden, unexplained outburst of violence toward him.
Or, consider “Little Black Box” by Eric Stark, in which the seemingly innocent appearance of a small black box in place of the daily newspaper heralds a mysterious, inescapable invasion. The fear comes not so much from the boxes themselves – they don’t do anything other than grow in number – but in the unknown origin of the cubes and the stark realization that there is nothing anyone can do to escape them. “Who’s afraid of a little black box?” his lead character asks. Who indeed?
A simple mosquito bite leads to another unforgettable calamity in John Rowlands’ entry, “One Small Bite.” The ensuing outbreak is eerily reminiscent of the current pandemic’s spread. It hits a little too close to home during these harrowed times, but that’s what makes it so powerful.
“The Mattress” by John Peters is another story that will linger long after reaching the end. It’s a modern-day update on an age-old story of a succubus whose unyielding sexual assaults makes a long-lasting impression upon her victims. At the very least, you’ll think twice about ever buying a “slightly” used mattress again.
“Flamenco Amputee” by Paul J. Gitschner offers up a strange audition by prisoners willing to risk life and limb to impress a panel of judges to earn their freedom.
A shadow-like spider skulking around a mother recently risen from the dead is an eerie Creepshow-like tale of love and family sacrifice in Mark E. Deloy’s “Momma’s Shadow.”
Marcus Grimm entertains readers with a cautionary tale when making the deal of a lifetime in “A Hell of a Deal,” while eerie wishmaster Heman Black solves problems in a unique way in “Dark and Stormy Wishes” by Bailey Hunter. And in “The Exterminators,” Sara Joan Berniker reminds readers to read the fine print on their contracts.
A Boy Scout learns sometimes virtuous deeds are not worth that little badge in Curt Mahr’s shocker, “Helping Hand.”
The main character in Kevin Filan’s “The Remembering Country” is forced to recall an incredible secret about the beast within him.
And, in one of my favorites, M. Louise Dixon leaves readers in awe with a tale of giant worms in “Las Brujas Del Rio Verde.”
Sleep with the lights on
Oftentimes, there is little in the way of explanation for what transpires in each story, which is what makes short horror like this so incredibly weird and exciting. The answers are left to the readers’ own imagination.
By the same token, most stories end on a shocking or tragic note. These are not tales where the final girl prevails in the end, nor should they be.
These are tales that will make you go to sleep with the lights on, if you dare sleep at all.
For those uninitiated, screenwriting Twitter is where all the would-be, hopeful, and think-they-are-expert screenwriters, along with a few actual industry folks, hang out when they’re not writing because, well, writing is procrastinating for most and Twitter is the epitome of procrastination.
In any event, on any given day you are likely to find robust debates on all things screenwriting, from copyrighting your work to whether you should share loglines with the rest of the world to how to format your sluglines (bold!). Keep in mind there is a camp of writers who contend there are no rules of screenwriting, that you can do as you like because no one, including Hollywood (which some say isn’t a thing), knows what they want or can agree on how they want it. There are “guidelines” and “conventions” and patterns, but if you trust books like Save the Cat you should be shunned and shamed. That’s because it follows a proven formula of how movies have been made and, heaven forbid, if your story should follow an existing pattern or formula and not think outside of the box (but that’s fodder for another article altogether).
Bottom line, you must take everything you read or hear and ultimately make up your own mind because no one in this industry really knows anything.
Screenwriting Twitter (#screenwriting) is also great for networking and building relationships with other like-minded screenwriters. I’ve followed a few Twitter “regulars” and interacted with some of their tweets, but I haven’t really developed any “friendships” or “connections” yet. These things take time. I did draw the attention of Stage 32 (an online screenwriting site that provides script services, webinars, and pitch meetings with execs – for a fee, of course!) who sent me a nice message saying they’d seen me on Twitter and invited me to contact them to help further my career. I haven’t taken them up on the “offer” yet. It seems there is money involved and, well, I don’t have any.
I also enjoy Twitter for its occasional fun tweets. You can often find threads about favorite movies, movie tropes, and jokes about screenwriting. It’s somehow comforting to know that others are going through the same feelings of doubt and insecurities about writing as you are and that you can laugh about it.
Most of the time, the screenwriting community is supportive and encouraging. Members routinely chime in to help celebrate even the smallest of individual accomplishments, whether that is finishing a first draft of a script, placing in a contest, or, better yet, landing a manager, agent, job in a TV writers’ room, or a spec sale! I’m in this camp because I firmly believe in supporting creatives regardless of where they are in their careers.
That can’t be said of many in the Facebook screenwriting community who can be downright rude, insensitive, and condescending. This group would much rather malign you for your incomplete loglines, your pesky questions about the craft, or your requests for feedback on your work. It’s gotten so bad in a couple of the screenwriting Facebook groups that I’ve quit the groups and have had to block some users. I just don’t have time or patience to put up with haters and “better-than-you-alls.”
That’s not to say that all Facebook screenwriting groups behave that way. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association, of which I am a page administrator, strives to be supportive and always encouraging. We know screenwriters are at various levels of their career and if we can help them out or point them in the right direction to furthering their craft, we’ll happily do that.
I guess what I’m saying is, pick and choose your friends and groups carefully. No one likes a hater, no one likes a know-it-all.
So, enough about that. Time to recap the week:
So, last week I had a goal of finishing a spec script based on the TV show What We Do in the Shadows (the new season starts next week on FX!). I’m still not there yet, but I’m closer. Maybe this week will see me cross the finish line.
I also had planned to outline a new comedy pilot, which is a spinoff to my 2019 Austin Film Festival finalist screenplay ZARS: Zombie Apprehension & Relocation Service. I’ve already got the teaser or cold open written (that’s generally what is known as the first scene of the script that serves as a tease to the episode ahead). I also have a couple scenes mapped out, but I still need to come up with the connective tissue that will hold everything together.
Both of those projects will be at the top of my to do list for this week. Then it’s on to my feature script Jerry Lonely and planning/outlining/character work for a mystery novel I’ve got up my sleeve.
I finished reading The Good Death by S.D. Sykes and Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and wrote a book review for BookPage. I’ll let you know when it gets published. In the meantime, my review of Small Favors by Erin A. Craig has been posted on Chapter 16’s website.
Next up is City on Fire by Don Wilson (it doesn’t go on sale until April but I’ve got an ARC!) and Horror Library Vol. 1, a collection of horror short stories newly republished by Dark Moon Books.
Some devious and cunning minds will gather in Franklin (TN) this week for the Killer Nashville writing conference. I wish I could be with them, but this whole Covid pandemic thing has convinced me otherwise.
I’m fully vaccinated (although apparently a third shot is in the cards), and KN organizer Clay Stafford promises the conference and hotel are taking precautions, but I’m not comfortable taking any chances. Heck, I’m still masking up everywhere I go and I’m still using Walmart’s pickup service for my groceries until this all blows over.
Killer Nashville is one of my favorite events every year, which makes missing out so difficult.
The four-day event held each August (this is its 15th gathering after skipping last year because of the pandemic) attracts some of the best authors from across the globe for informative, educational, and entertaining panels on writing mystery, crime, and thrillers across a variety of mediums, including novels, short stories, and screenplays.
The event is typically headlined by a few best-selling authors. Past guests have included Jeffery Deaver, William Kent Krueger, Joyce Carol Oates, Otto Penzler, Max Allen Collins, Anne Perry, and Janet Evanovich, to name just a few. This year’s conference honors guests Walter Mosley, Lisa Black, and Tennessee’s own J.T. Ellison.
In addition to a nonstop slate of panels presented by attending authors and other guests, the event features an awards banquet for best published and unpublished novel in numerous categories, a mock crime scene to test your deductive skills, and pitch meetings with agents and editors.
But perhaps one of the best aspects of the conference is just meeting and networking with folks. I’ve met numerous authors and am fortunate to call them friends. The writing community at Killer Nashville is just that – a community of writers who genuinely support and encourage each other in all phases of their writing journey.
The event, of course, wouldn’t be the success it is without the vision of KN founder Clay Stafford (there’s a great interview with him here) and dedication of his staff. I’ve been fortunate to work alongside each of them over recent years as a book reviewer, Claymore contest reviewer, and volunteer. I even served on a panel one year, which still blows my mind.
I’m already looking forward to next year’s conference.
Writing Week in Review
My co-writer Jay Wright and I finished some revisions to our crime feature script Kings of Mississippi and submitted it to the Finish Line Screenplay Contest. We got some excellent feedback on our first read through from one of their readers that strengthened some of the emotional elements of the script. Now we wait and see if the revised script makes the quarterfinals cut.
I also tweaked a short horror script I wrote called Kurupira and entered it in the Fresh Blood Selects contest.
My other short horror script Skin, which just narrowly missed the Finals stage in the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition, failed to even make it to the quarterfinals in The Script Lab’s Free Screenwriting Competition. Sigh. Of course, there were 13,000 entries overall and only the top 1,000 made the first round of cuts. I’m sure Skin must have been right there knocking on the door, though, probably at No. 1001. Yeah.
And I made a little more progress on my spec script episode of What We Do in the Shadows. If you’re familiar with the FX show, you know it’s about a trio of vampires living in Staten Island. In my episode, Nandor and his familiar Guillermo attend a “Vampires Anonymous” meeting, while Laszlo and Nadja go to a Little League baseball game. To coin a phrase, hilarity ensues.
As I mentioned in a previous blog, I had planned to start on my feature script Jerry Lonely, but I’m still outlining it. Hopefully, I’ll have all the major plot points worked out and be ready to do the actual writing in September. The title has piqued the interest of several readers who want to know more, but all I will say about it at this point is that I’ve been watching The Godfather movies as prep work.
Which brings me to: My writing calendar.
Every couple of months or so I revise and prioritize my list of ongoing writing projects. I have a list of screenplays (shorts, TV pilots, and features) and other writing projects (shorts stories and novels) that I try to juggle. I try to match it up with upcoming contest or submission deadlines and then go from there.
Often, my plans go to hell, and I find myself having to reconfigure them a couple months later. But at least I’m trying.
I plan to use these weekly blog posts in part to help hold myself accountable to my writing plans by posting updates on my progress each week. My goal in the week ahead is to finish the first draft of the What We Do in the Shadows script and outline a TV pilot script. Check back here next week and I’ll let you know how I did.
What I’m Reading
Last week, I posted about the importance of reading and I’ve been making progress on my to be read pile.
I read the pilot script for the Emmy-nominated Hacks and listened to a streaming panel with the creators and actors, courtesy of Deadline’s Contenders series. There are more than a dozen other panels with the creators and stars of other Emmy-nominated shows on the platform, all free to view online.
I also finished reading a screenplay from one of my fellow Tennessee Screenwriting members and will be sending him some notes after I post this.
Meanwhile, I’m reading Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger, which I should finish by the weekend. I’ll then start on The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. I’m reviewing both books for BookPage.
Since I updated you on my writing efforts last week, I thought I’d take this week’s space to write about my other passion: reading.
They really go hand in hand, of course. If you’re going to be a great writer, whether it’s a novelist, screenwriter, playwright, or journalist, you need to be well-read. You need to not only keep up on your respective industry’s news and highlights, but you also need to read what others are writing. And, more importantly, you need to study.
“People like to say that the best advice they can give to writers is to read a lot. And that’s true, of course. But you shouldn’t just read literature. You should read life. Read movies, and art, and people. Read everything around you, very critically. Then build your method out of that process.”
I know, it sounds like work. But if you’re passionate about it, like I am, then reading is a pleasure.
When I first ventured into screenwriting, I really didn’t know much about the craft at all. I bought a few books about screenwriting to learn about the basics: character arcs, story structure, format, and so on. (The folks over at Script Reader Pro have put together a great list of the 12 Best Screenwriting Books to Read in 2021, if you’re interested. And as if that isn’t enough, they also have a nifty list of the 8 Best Non-Screenwriting Books That Will Help You Become a Better Screenwriter, focusing on such topics as fear of failure, productivity, creativity, motivation, the ego, stress, sleep, inspiration and more.)
Of course, there’s only so much you can get from a book on the craft. To really experience the nuances and intricacies of screenwriting, you must read screenplays. The more you read, the easier it is to recognize how other writers…write. What they do well, how they do what they do.
When I first ventured into the screenwriting game, I enlisted as a script reader for the Nashville Film Festival’s screenwriting competition in 2014. After an introductory session on what to look for in a good screenplay, I was off and running. I think I read over a hundred scripts in my first year! I even got to serve as a judge one year.
The folks at Nashville appreciated me so much, they recommended me as a reader for the Austin Film Festival’s screenwriting competition. I’ve read for them for several years now, although I haven’t read nearly as much over the last two years. For one thing, I’ve been writing more so I’ve had to limit my reading output. And, secondly, I’ve focused more intently on reading screenplays from produced shows and movies. Instead of reading with a mindset of looking for what not to do, I’m reading with an eye toward what screenwriters did to make their scripts sing.
Scott Myers, who writes the daily Go Into the Story blog, has compiled this list of 30 screenplays to read. And if that’s not enough, there’s more here. He even has a seven-part series on How to Read a Screenplay for structure, characters, themes, style, and more.
Reading the scripts for Academy Award nominees and Emmy-nominated scripts has been a new priority for me. These are supposed to be the best of the best scripts, so I try to give each of them a thorough read. Fortunately, there are numerous sites online that make the award-nominated scripts available. Every time I see one listed, I immediately download and save it to my cloud server. (Scripts tend to disappear from the internet after a while, so it’s best to save them when you can.).
I’m currently reading this year’s crop of Emmy-nominated scripts (including the pilot episodes for Ted Lasso, The Queen’s Gambit, Lovecraft Country, The Crown, and many others) ahead of the awards show in September. I admit, I haven’t seen a lot of the episodes – I’m limited to what’s on Amazon Prime and DirecTV – as there are too many streamers out there. But reading the scripts can be equally as educating and entertaining.
The Script Lab has a great library of screenplays of produced movies you can download and read. And if you want to read what some of the best unproduced screenwriters are writing, you can check out some of the top winning scripts from The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship.
I’m also always happy to read screenplays from screenwriting peers and provide feedback. The Tennessee Screenwriting Association meets each week to read and critique scripts from members. I recently read fellow member Elvis Wilson’s Driving Top Down, which is a semifinalist in the Vail Film Festival screenwriting competition, and Bob Giordano’s new script, Southern Draw.
I also recently had the pleasure of reading the hilariously entertaining How to Make it in Hollywood by Christopher O’Bryant and Shia LeBeouf Won the Wrong Mutherf*ckin’ Screenwriting Competition by Kevin Nelson, both of whom I came across on Twitter (I’ll write about networking, another important aspect of the screenwriting game, another time).
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
— Dr. Seuss
If I’m not reading screenplays, I’ve more than likely got my nose in a book. I read and review books regularly for BookPage and Chapter 16 (click the links to see my reviews). I used to get a lot of ARCs (advance reader copies) of books before they hit the shelves, but since the pandemic started the books have largely migrated to electronic versions (which I don’t prefer, although I do have a Kindle and tablet). I favor physical copies, but I make do as best I can. I’ve even been “reading” some audio books for BookPage (another topic for another day).
I’m currently reading a pair of mystery/crime thrillers, Lightning Strike by William Kent Krueger and The Good Death by S.D. Sykes. And waiting in the wings, Don Winslow’s City on Fire. (Sadly, Winslow just announced he’s delaying the release of the book until early 2022 because he’s canceling his book appearances this fall due to the pandemic. He was slated to be at this year’s Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, but will hopefully reschedule for next year’s event.)
I’m also making my way through the recently re-issued seven-volume Horror Library series of books from Dark Moon Books, which I’ll be reviewing on this and other sites.
And finally, I scour the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and my e-mail for tips on the craft of writing as well as industry-related news. I’ll pass along links to some of the more interesting and useful articles in future blogs (something I used to do here quite often).
But I’ve rambled long enough. Let me know what you’re reading in the comments!
I’m relaunching these weekly posts highlighting my writing life. It’s a way to hold myself accountable on my writing goals and a way to commiserate with like-minded creative souls (as well as a few old friends!).
These columns will include a little of everything. And by that, I mean I may write about topics of interest, tips or lessons learned about the craft, upcoming webinars or events I think may be of interest, and, of course, updates on what I’m writing, reading, and more.
You may not care, or you may find a link or nugget of information valuable to you within. Either way, you can tell your friends and family someday, “I knew him when…”
Today, I’m talking about my short screenplay “Skin,” screenplay readers, and why it’s important to have a spec TV script in your portfolio.
So, let’s get started!
What I’m Writing
My short screenplay “Skin” – a macabre little number about an unusual couple who survive by wearing the skins of their victims and their argument over one of their next skins — advanced to the semifinals of the Nashville Film Festival’s Screenwriting Competition! According to script competition director Cat Stewart, my script got “a few finalist votes,” but that wasn’t enough as only unanimous finalist vote-getters made the elite Finals round. So, close but no cigar.
Still, it’s exciting that it had such a good run in the contest, reaching the top 13 scripts in the shorts category. Unlike last year when I entered my TV comedy pilot “Bill Fisher’s Trading Post” (also a semifinalist!), the pool for shorts was written by writers from anywhere in the world, not just Tennessee. And it still reached semis and damn near got into the finals!
I must be doing something right!
The truth is screenplay contests are all very subjective. One reader/judge may be absolutely blown away by your words, another may only be mildly impressed. People have different tastes. You never know how they are feeling going into the read. Maybe they had a long day in their real job or were facing a family situation (this Covid pandemic is enough to stress everyone out!), so they weren’t in the mood. Maybe they had a great day and were ready for someone to wow them. Maybe they weren’t especially keen on horror with a socio-political twist. Maybe they were looking for a laugh instead.
So many factors go into any read.
An earlier version of the same script made quarterfinals in the Killer Shorts Screenplay Competition in January before bowing out. But it failed to even make quarters in either the Filmmatic Shorts Competition or the Holly Shorts Competition. So, you never know. In the end, it’s just a matter of connecting with the right reader.
Kind of like winning the lottery.
So, what now? Nashville is including the logline and synopsis for the script in its competitions packet for interested producers, so we’ll see if it gets any bites. I may also post it on Ink Tip, which is a site where you can post your scripts for possible producers who may be interested in optioning it. Another possibility would be to film the script myself. I know several people who have had some film experience who I’m sure would be more than happy to help. I don’t think I’m at that point yet, but it’s certainly something to think about. I’ve entered it in a couple of other screenwriting contests and am waiting to see how it does in those.
In the meantime, I’ve been working on finishing up a spec script based on the What We Do in the Shadows TV series. My goal was to have it finished and entered in the Nickelodeon Screenwriting Contest, but that deadline has come and gone. More likely, I’ll try to enter it in another upcoming contest on my calendar. Last year I wrote a spec for Young Sheldon, the spinoff series from The Big Bang Theory. It was loads of fun and is one of my favorite scripts, and this one is proving to be just as much fun.
Writing specs (which are scripts set in the world of an existing TV show) used to be one of the tried-and-true ways people broke into the screenwriting industry. But with the thirst for new material by all the different streamers, cable channels, and networks, original series scripts are more sought after than ever. That doesn’t mean having a spec or two in your portfolio is a bad idea. It can serve as proof that you can write to whatever show in whatever voice that’s needed.
And like I said, it’s fun. Like fan fiction, only better.
This month, I’m participating in Goal Post, a one-month challenge to write a screenplay from start to finish. If I can churn out three script pages a day, mission accomplished. It’s eminently doable and, if nothing else, will serve as a good incentive to push myself to finish another script. It may come out like crap (most first drafts do!), but it will give me something to work on, polish, and make stronger.
I’m still playing with the title, but for now I’m calling it “Jerry Lonely.” How does that sound?
Journalism today isn’t what it used to be. Part of that has to be because of the overly cautious news sources who routinely withhold information out of so-called privacy concerns. But, back in the day, journalists had ways to work around such roadblocks. They had sources inside of sources who could point them to the answers they sought.
And when that failed, there were databases they could access for other information. (There still are.)
Nowadays, however, it seems if a source says “no, I can’t give you that information,” that’s it. End of story. No further effort required. Here’s what we know, or rather what the sources will tell us. We’ll leave the rest for another time when maybe they will be ready to spoonfeed us a bit more information.
Case in point:
This past week, a guy opened fire on a city police officer in my town. The officer gave chase, resulting in a shootout in a crowded shopping parking lot. The perpetrator was killed.
Police then learned that a K9 dog had been shot in the initial drive-by. During emergency surgery, the dog died.
The news reports on the incident didn’t provide much more information than you just read. The name of the perp was released, and his age, and the name of the dog.
The dog’s funeral was covered extensively.
But I have yet to see an article about the man who did the shooting. Beyond his name, who was he? Why did he open fire on a police officer?
The TBI is investigating, so I guess that means there’s nothing more to be released until they get ready to release it.
A journalist worth his salt wouldn’t quit there. You’ve got a name, so let’s figure it out. What town did the guy live in? Did he have a criminal record? Did he have a Facebook or Twitter or Instagram page? Are there friends or family on his page that can be contacted? Actual people who can tell us more about him? What information or sources can be gathered from his obituary?
That’s fact-finding information any good journalist should pursue in any situation. There’s a story behind the story here, but no one seems interested in it. If the official source doesn’t share the information, does that mean it’s not worth pursuing? Or is it because journalists today are lazy?
Local journalism isn’t alone in its apparent laziness.
All week long, CNN White House correspondent Kaitlan Collins has bemoaned the lack of access to the President and anyone in his administration. We know from past experience that when Trump and his co-horts do answer questions, they are riddled with lies in any case.
Kayleigh McEneny finally took a handful of questions from the press for the first time in over two weeks on Friday, but refused to take a question from Collins.
Kudos to Collins for trying, but honestly, what did she expect?
I suggested in a tweet to Collins that she should find another source to answer her questions.