Decision made: Killer Nashville this year, Austin next year

A few weeks ago I had something of a dilemma: Attend the Austin Film Festival or the Killer Nashville writer’s conference. Both are coming up this weekend.

The big difference between the two is that Austin’s writer’s panels focus on screenwriting while Nashville’s is a novel writer’s conference. I’m more than interested in both avenues of writing. I’m working on a mystery-thriller novel and I am writing a couple of screenplays. In other words, I desperately want to attend both conferences.

Austin Film Festival logoMany of my friends suggested Austin as the better of the two, and I certainly was leaning that way as well. It’s been around a lot longer and it’s a much more prestigious conference. I also had earned a conference badge to attend all four days of panels and events at Austin for my work as a reader in its script competition over the summer. You can’t beat free admission, right?

Well, as it turns out, I guess you can.

Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned on attending Austin’s fest this year. I only got the gig reading for the fest thanks to a surprise recommendation from the folks at the Nashville Film Festival, for whom I also am a script reader. I was initially asked to read just twenty scripts in exchange for a one-day conference pass, but I wound up reading over fifty scripts in a two-month period. The folks at Austin upped my reward to a full four-day pass. It was an unexpected privilege and an incredible opportunity, and there began my dilemma.

Killer Nashville logoUntil then I had my sights set on attending the Killer Nashville conference. In fact, I nearly bought my Killer Nashville registration back in the spring (if I had, the whole debate would already have been settled). I held off, partly because I wasn’t sure what my plans would be by the end of October and I didn’t want to make a commitment I wouldn’t be able to keep. And partly because of the cost of admission in the first place. Writer’s conferences aren’t cheap, as you may well know.

Well, as noted above, the decision ultimately boiled down to affordability. Even though admission to Austin was free, I’d still have to find cheap air fare and an inexpensive hotel. But if I stayed too far off the beaten path from downtown, I was afraid I would miss out on a key part of the Austin experience.

The Nashville gig, on the other hand, is right in my backyard. No hotel, no air fare to worry about on short notice. What’s more, there are plenty of panels, a bookcon, agent/editor roundtables, and parties to attend.

I suppose I could have made Austin work with some thrifty shopping, scrimping and saving. Fortunately, AFF competition manager Matt Dy has already extended an invitation for me to read again next year. With that in mind, I feel a bit better about skipping Austin this year. I can plan ahead and make certain I get to Austin next fall.

So, decision made, and one that I am comfortable with. Killer Nashville, here I come.




Reading and Writing Around the Web for 7/19

Welcome to another edition of Reading and Writing Around the Web.

Every day I scour my Facebook feed for interesting articles and tips related to reading and writing. Some of these articles are too good to keep to myself, so I’m sharing my finds here. Bookmark the ones you like, read and discard the rest. And if you see something you’d like to share on the craft, by all means add it to the comments section below.

For those of you contemplating self-publishing your work, here’s some interesting things to consider before you do. Both come from author Derek Haines:

The rush to publish (or better yet, why not to rush!)

An essential list every author should read

Jane Friedman’s website included a couple of posts about SELF-e, a business that helps self-published authors distribute their electronic books to libraries. Unfortunately, authors can’t yet reap any monetary rewards from the program.

Another way to help promote buzz around your book is jump on the Pinterest bandwagon. Here’s how.

And now, for something completely different (to coin a phrase), here are a couple of humorous bedtime stories to enjoy (one for you and one for your little ones):

B.J. Novak’s The Book With No Pictures (all-ages)

Gwar’s Oderus Urungus reads Goodnight Moon (WARNING: adults only!)

If you adult readers still can’t sleep after viewing that last one, this one probably won’t help either (sorry):

The true story behind A Nightmare on Elm Street

You may be thinking about screaming right now. Before you do, here’s what scientists now know about screams.

Good night, all!



Writers: You don’t have to do this … but you probably should

It’s a simple enough line of dialogue: “You don’t have to do this.”

But it’s also one of the most common and, perhaps, overused lines of dialogue in today’s movies and TV shows as well. Listen for it, and you will hear it uttered more often than not.

The line exists for one reason only: It represents a decision point.

The main character has one last opportunity to consider his or her course of action. Do they take on the bad guy even though it puts them, their family, their career, etc., at risk? Do they choose the action even if it goes against every moral fiber of their being?

Of course, the character faced with the choice always does move ahead. If not, the movie or TV episode would fizzle on the spot. The goal would go unfulfilled, the viewer would leave unhappy.

It’s unfortunate, however, that so many screenplays telegraph this choice in such a way. It’s not very original in terms of writing, and it sounds cliched. But there it is, time and time again. It’s clearly an audible cue to the viewers that this is an important decision to be made. It is a moment that everything in the film has been building towards. In other words, the big payoff is at hand.

I’m not sure if this line of dialogue has its own chapter in the many how-to screenplay books out there, but it should. Your story, your screenplay, is nothing without it.



Lessons from a script reader

Over the past several months I have served as a volunteer reader for scripts entered in the inaugural Nashville Film Festival screenwriting competition. I am working on a spec feature script and a tv pilot, so the experience of reading and reviewing scripts in the competition afforded an excellent opportunity to learn my craft. And it’s been a rewarding endeavor, to be sure.

The first 30 pages of each script are crucial. As a reader, I was tasked with identifying the premise of each script (who and what the script is about) and determining how compelling the story was. Key ingredients in the grading process were the characters introduced and the use of dialogue.

What stood out, more often than not, were the missteps that kept the scripts from reaching the next level of review.

Below are some insights into scripts, as well as some things to watch out for:

Flashbacks. A character’s backstory is certainly important to fleshing out their motivations, wants and needs, but flashbacks to me are a huge distraction. Too many writers are relying on flashbacks as a crutch. Frankly, I found flashbacks as unnecessary interruptions in the flow of the main story. They slow the momentum, seem obtrusive, and don’t always add much in the way of depth to a story or character. Heck, I’ve read scripts where there are flashbacks after the first paragraph. Can we not establish the character in the present for a few minutes before jumping backwards? If flashbacks are needed, then look at something like Saving Mr. Banks as a way to do them right. In that movie, the flashbacks were a story unto themselves. The story in the past lent deep meaning to the main character and why she wouldn’t sell her story to Mr. Disney.

Too many characters. Focus on establishing the main character, his or her current situation and wants, followed by the inciting incident and how that might impact that character’s goals. Remember, stories are about the transformation of character from one state to another. By inserting character after character into the script, no matter how small a role they have, it takes away from the story you should be telling. I read one script in which there were ten named characters within the first four pages, followed by a dozen more by page twenty. When you have to look at a list of characters or keep scrolling back to remember who’s who, that ruins the momentum of the story. That loses the reader. That dooms the script.

Establish your characters quickly. Don’t wait until page 30 to introduce a character’s romantic interest, confidant or mentor, protagonist or antagonist.

Write believable dialogue. Make certain dialogue sounds unique to each character and that their own personalities/motivations come through. Try not to be too simple or direct. Use some subtext, i.e., not always stating what is meant but inferring it. But don’t go overboard. I’ve read a lot of scripts where the writer suffers from the delusion that they are Quentin Tarrantino. That can come across as being too writerly and unnatural sounding. Be careful of loaded informational dialogue that tells more than it shows.

Avoid use of camera directions. That’s the job of the director. Follow the character and his actions, and the director will follow you. Let your script flow naturally.

Avoid too much setup. I’ve read a lot of scripts that take page after page to establish characters, build worlds or situations, etc. The story doesn’t get going until after page 30. If your character’s goals and inciting incident aren’t clear at this point, or earlier, your script isn’t going to make it to the next reader.

Find an original plot/idea. So many script writers are clearly chasing trends. Zombies. Seniors coping with Alzheimer’s or other end of life diseases. Young adult vampires. Super heroes. This superhero phase is going to fade, trust me. Marvel and DC Comics destroyed my love for their characters by pushing out title after title in the 1990s. They’re back at it again now (DC publishes 52 books every month alone, if not more) and Marvel has more than 100 titles. It’s too many to keep track of and it’s ridiculous to even try. Now with more and more superhero movies on the horizon (a half dozen planned for this year alone) there are few fresh superhero stories to be told. It’s become comical. [Addendum: I say all that, and yet it’s interesting to note that one of the winning screenplays in the NaFF competition was Heroman, a story about, you guessed it, a washed up superhero. So what do I know?]

Realize that your scripts will cost money to produce. Yes, we all want to write the next summer blockbuster. But face it, if you are just starting out it’s extremely unlikely that any studio will plop down a hundred million dollars to produce your movie. You have no cred. You have no track record. They’re going to go with the proven commodity. And if your script includes car chases, special-effects laden fights on the moon or in deep space, the script is going to be seen as unproducable and it’s going to be thrown on the slush pile. Keep it simple, and focus on the story.

Pay attention to three-act structure. You may hate it, you may think it’s formulaic and confining. Fine. But if you’re just starting out, you better know how to write a script using three-act structure before you decide to break the rules. Script readers are looking for three-act structure, and if it’s not there your script, despite all its gloriously fresh ideas, will be tossed.

Get coverage on your script. There are plenty of outlets that will read and provide coverage for you. Yes, for a price, but it will be worth it in the long run. The coverage can point to structural problems, plot holes, etc. that you can address now before they doom your script. [Addendum: It would also be useful to join a local screenwriters group, if you have access to one. I am now attending meetings of the Tennessee Screenwriters Association where I hope to build new connections, continue to learn my craft and, hopefully, receive valuable feedback.]

Lastly, for God’s sake, check your spelling and your grammar. Punctuation and spelling were not instant reasons for disqualification with NaFF. But you can bet they were noticed and that somewhere in the back of readers’ minds when making their decision, it factored into the equation. Sloppy mistakes signal that the script isn’t up to professional standards and the writer wasn’t either. Misspellings, missing commas and apostrophes, and inconsistencies in characters (names, ages, for instance) matter.

To write a good script, you’ve got to read scripts. Good and bad. See what works, what doesn’t. Go to LA Screenwriter for links to scripts, including Oscar-award winners Her, 12 Years A Slave, Dallas Buyers Club and more.