MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #16
If you want me to write a blurb for your own screenwriting book or software package, I don’t blame you. When authors approach me for an endorsement, I can’t turn anybody down. I like to think that this is the result of a generous spirit, but in truth it is also self service. Read on to find out why.
I’m an easy blurb.
Anybody who tells you that I’ll quickly and cavalierly endorse (almost) any new screenwriting book is telling you the truth. When authors approach me for a statement, I just can’t turn them down. I like to think that this is evidence of my generous spirit, but it is also a selfish act.
Rather than seeing myself as a rival, butting heads with competitors, I view other screenwriting educators as colleagues and seek solidarity among them. My longtime pal screenwriting author Viki King said to me, “They don’t buy my book or your book but both of our books, and also Syd’s and Lew’s and Hal’s and Chris’s and everybody else’s.” These volumes are like cook books. Purchasers acquire not one but several.
"What we’re really doing,” Viki continued, “is contributing to writers’ block. Writers read our books—and attend our conferences and workshops—rather than work on their screenplays.”
If the author of a new screenwriting book wants my approval emblazoned across its cover, why would I deny her? Is not my own interest well served by getting my name out there? People skim through screenwriting books in a bookstore--if they can find a bookstore--and see my name endorsing various books. Maybe that causes them to regard me as an authority. Later, when they come upon one of my own books, perhaps they’ll think, “I heard of that guy.” Maybe that will move them closer to buying my book.
At institutions of higher learning (for example my own employer the University of California) faculty committees evaluating candidates for tenure and other rewards assign more credit to the endorsement of somebody else’s book than authorship of one’s own. The thinking goes like this: If a publisher puts your endorsement on their book, that’s proof-positive they regard the endorser as having prestige.
I am called upon often to endorse not only screenwriting books but also word processing programs. This never fails to amuse me, since I regard myself as somewhat computer-challenged. I often feel like a tradition-bound, anti-technology Luddite. Why in the world would anyone seek approval from me, essentially an analog guy, for an enterprise that is digital?
The fact is, however, that I entered the digital revolution relatively early, acquiring my first computer in 1983. It was a Morrow Micro-Decision II, a steam-driven titanium-encased hernia-inducing hulk of a machine about the size of a Volkswagen. Every few days I had to replenish the water in its boiler and re-wind its Victrola-like hand-cranked spring. (Kidding!)
In Ronald Reagan money the set-up cost me three thousand dollars. At the time of this writing, adjusted for inflation, that’s ten or twelve thousand bucks. On my wrist at this moment I‘m wearing a million times as much power in a twenty-eight dollar Casio water-resistant day-and-date stop-watch I picked up at Radio Shack.
How much memory did the Morrow have on its hard drive?
There was no hard drive at all. The operating system sported two five-and-a-quarter-inch floppies.
Onboard RAM? Sixty-four K.
You read it right. Not megs. K.
As in the Ice Age or the Pleistocene era, there was no email, no Internet. I used the computer strictly as a word processor.
But what a word processor it was!
In the intervening years word processing software has added so many pointless, distracting bells and whistles that users breaking in new programs spend hours customizing them, getting rid of the ‘improvements.’ I still lament the passing of my dear friend, the easy-to-learn, easy-to-use, now-long-ago discontinued WordStar.
Years ago a team of three information engineers, creators of a screenwriting software program, visited me in my campus office intent on demonstrating their system and winning my endorsement. Their product was no mere formatter—a system for manipulating standard prose into proper screenplay format—but also a creative assistant. According to its designers, beyond setting the appropriate margins for dialogue and description, it could recognize story problems and solve issues relating to character, dialogue, and more.
As they told it, there was no aspect of screenwriting their system couldn’t address. If you held down the ‘Control’ key and typed ‘B’ it would in a flash render the whole script brilliant. I had the distinct impression that, in addition to everything else, it could also sharpen pencils, brew coffee, and vacuum up around the office.
These entrepreneurs asserted that their program was useful for writers who were well involved in a particular story, and also for writers who had only a vague idea about where they were going with a script. To demonstrate, they suggested I try it out on one of my own projects. Did I have an in-progress script, or even merely a notion for a script, in order to test the program?
I did indeed.
BACKUP GIRL is the story of an entertainer. It’s based loosely on a friend of mine who has enjoyed a substantial career as a singer/songwriter. She got her start singing background vocals behind Bette Middler, when the Divine Miss M. early in her career was performing at bath houses and funky local local clubs. In addition to the band, Bette had three background singers she called The Harlettes. It was a play on ‘harlot,’ of course, and also on Harlem, as the background wooping and shee-ooping the women provided was clearly African-American influenced.
Toward the end of the act, with the band vamping, after introducing the individual musicians, she would get around at last to the Harlettes. “And finally,” she would snarl, “put your hands together for my backup girls.” The girls would shimmy and shake their way to the front of the stage, obscuring diva Bette, who would then say, “I call them ‘my backup girls’ because I always have to say to them: ‘Back up, girls!’”
Wide-eyed and Betty-Boop-open-mouthed, the girls would promptly retreat to their designated position in the rear.
I’ve long considered writing a script called BACKUP GIRL. It’s the story of a background singer who aspires to be a diva, but learns by the end of the film that it's enough merely to be part of the background. Sing in harmony? Live in harmony.
One of the screenwriting software guys positioned himself at my desk before my computer. “We start with the title,” he said. “We enter the title in the title window. What is your project’s title?”
The sales pitch came to an abrupt halt. In an instant, the air in my office plunged thirty degrees. A gaping, yawning, hollow, empty, aching silence followed for what felt like an hour or a week.
“What happened?” I asked. “What’s the matter?”
Finally, one of them spoke. “You can’t enter ‘backup,’” he said. “’Backup’ is a command. It tells the system to make copies of itself.”
Here was software that would order the screenwriter’s rental tux for his Oscar acceptance speech, but could not tolerate the title of his screenplay. These were bright, eager, inventive software entrepreneurs, and I shared personally in their devastation.
Did I endorse the software?
It was the least I could do.
On Their Way Up: New Writer Profile on Madeleine Holly-Rosing
Madeleine Holly-Rosing’s diverse background includes an M.A. from Columbia University in Arabic and the Cultural History of the Arabs and a Graduate Fellow with the CIA. But her true love has always been writing. She has written and co-produced a multiple award winning (Aurora, Telly and a MarCom Award) PSA for Women In Film (“WIF”) and is an active member of WIF. Winner of the Sloan Fellowship for her script Stargazer, she was also a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship. Madeleine has also won several other Fellowships through UCLA. Formerly a national ranked epee fencer, Madeleine competed nationally and internationally. She is an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy and historical military fiction. Madeleine lives with her rocket scientist husband, David, and two dogs, Apollo and Sheba. (And no, they were not named after the characters in the original Battlestar Gallactica.)
Her family feature Vintage Rose, with Alexandra Milchan attached to produce, is currently being shopped as is her TV pilot Restoration, written with character actor Peter Onorati. She is also developing her TV pilot, Boston Metaphysical Society, into a comic book series. Look for it to be web published in March 2012.
In this issue, we conduct a Q&A with Madeleine, a graduate of the UCLA School of Theater, Film & Television’s MFA Screenwriting Program, on her experience on breaking into the entertainment world and her business strategies as a new writer.
1. What made you realize that you needed a business strategy?
Madeleine: Two words – Howard Suber. I took his strategy class and it became apparent that we as writers need a business plan. With the help of such great instructors like Paul Castro, Mike Colleary and many others at UCLA, I was able to piece one together. This is an ultra-competitive business that requires more than just talent. You have to learn how to promote yourself using a thoughtful and systematic approach which suits your personality. Meaning, what I did may not work for other people.
2. What do you mean by a systematic approach?
Madeleine: My plan during my last year at UCLA was to have several scripts ready to shop in different genres in TV and Feature. With that in place, I reached out to people who had already shown interest in my work and built on that. Once I was able to generate buzz on a script, I used that momentum to market other scripts. If everyone thinks that someone else wants something you have and you can’t give it to them, that makes them want you even more. When that was done, I knew I needed a team behind me. So I reached out to my former mentor for a referral to her entertainment attorney and to a classmate for a referral to a manager. Please note the importance of the word “referral.” This business is relationship based. Which means it is very important to continue your relationships with the people you went to school with. Networking may be time consuming, but it is also rewarding on a personal and professional level. Plus, it’s fun to hang out with your friends.
3. What kind of business mistakes do you see writers do?
Madeleine: What makes me crazy is watching writers let opportunities slip by. I’ve seen writers do really well in major competitions then when managers and/or agents request the script, the writers never follow up. And I know these writers are incredibly talented people. I’ve heard every excuse from “I’m too busy,” to “The script isn’t ready. I need more time to polish.” Well, the clock is ticking and after about a month, that opportunity is lost. If you’ve written a script that has done well, have confidence in yourself. Don’t be afraid. Most people are going to pass, but what if they don’t? You’ll never know unless you try.
4. Anything else?
Madeleine: I’ve seen too many writers get a manager and/or agent and think their career has now been made. That suddenly work and money will fall into their laps. For a fortunate few, this may happen. But for the rest of us: No such luck. This is not to say managers and/or agents aren’t important, because they are. But the responsibility of who drives your career is yours and yours alone. It is important to see your manager/agent as a part of your team, not the Holy Grail. Which is why I developed what I call my post-graduate strategy for lack of a better name. And yes, I know I’m a little obsessive when it comes to planning, but hey, it’s been working so far.
5. What’s your post-graduate strategy?
Madeleine: Not putting all my eggs in one basket. I have a couple of projects with my manager, two script projects that I developed separately and my comic book series. Each of these projects have their own life cycle so if something tanks in one I don’t spend much time being depressed about it and move on to the others. It’s a great way to keep moving forward. I know how hard it is emotionally when you’ve worked on something for a long time and then it goes nowhere. This way it makes it easier to put the disappointment to the side because you’ve got other projects waiting in the wings.
6. Speaking about other projects, writing comics and graphic novels is very popular now. Why did you choose to write one?
Madeleine: My first goal was to develop a comic book series to help promote my TV pilot Boston Metaphysical Society. And once again, UCLA stepped up to the plate. I’ve taken two courses with a fabulous instructor by the name of Nunzio DeFilippis through UCLA Extension. I’m working on the third issue right now and I discovered I love the form. I have a bunch of ideas for other comic book series, so I can’t wait until I have a little spare time to develop those.
7. What life experiences influenced your writing the most?
Madeleine: Fencing. It is a grueling sport that takes years to master for very little return. Sound familiar?
8. Do you consider yourself a writer or filmmaker or both?
Madeleine: Definitely a writer. I’ve gotten my feet wet producing and I know I can do it, but I’m not sure I really want to.
9. Being a screenwriter or filmmaker in this biz is hard. How do you currently support yourself and your family as a writer?
Madeleine: I don’t. LOL. I am very fortunate to have a husband who supports me. We see this as a team effort. I do, however, work part-time for LA Fitness as a Spin Instructor. Which by the way has been very helpful in making contacts and networking. That’s how I met Peter. He has a credit list longer than my arm, so I value the expertise he brings to the project.
10. What advice do you have for other writers to stay dedicated to their craft while balancing other necessary aspects of their life (such as family, working another job to support, etc.)?
Madeleine: Get regular exercise and go learn something new.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: