Fellowship Applications: What Not to Do

Last year, around June 8, I decided to enter the competition for NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge. I didn’t have a completed spec, or even a half-completed spec, but felt that if I worked hard on it, I could get it in time for the June 29th deadline. I decided to write a Vampire Diaries Spec, because I had been watching it with my teenage daughter and I thought it was fun and it fit the specifications of being popular, renewed and in its first three seasons.

Actually, Season two had just wrapped up, and that gave me about forty-four episodes to study, most of which I had seen. The first thing I needed to do was to find some scripts to see how the show was formatted and get a feel for the style of the writing. As it turned out, CW scripts are hard to come by, and I was only able to get my hands on the pilot. What I couldn’t learn from that, I had to make up or glean from the show.

For the next three weeks I worked very hard to get the script together, 8 to 12 hours a day. I hadn’t done a spec script and was still learning how TV story lines intertwined. What I ended up with was a polished first draft, but a first draft nonetheless. Being an egomaniacal newbie writer, I sent off the script, convinced that even in its unfinished state, my natural talent would shine through – Hah! On the day it was due, I slaved away on my computer until the last possible moment, finishing up the essay questions and filling out the application. Of course I never heard from them.

This year I’m doing somewhat better. Having spent the rest of the summer rewriting my spec, I sent it off to a contest in which it placed in the quarterfinals. That alerted me that another draft was needed. I took the time to rework it, cut it down considerably, and through the process of several evaluations over the life of the script, I got it close to the best it could be.

This year, I have already applied to Disney and WB. Thankfully, I learned my lesson and had my essays written, reviewed and rewritten well in advance. The actual preparation of the applications took much longer than I anticipated, so I was very happy to have given myself that extra time. Weeks before the deadline, I asked some friends in the industry for letters of recommendation, which they agreed to do. I ended up with three glowing letters to choose two from, and felt that the application I sent off would be seriously considered. I had done all I could do.

I’d say the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I never want to show anyone work that is sub-par. Second, another set of eyes will always see something I’ve missed, so it makes a lot of sense to have my work evaluated by a trusted advisor. Third, everything takes longer than I think it will, so I have to leave extra time to do it right.

That’s what I’ve learned to date about applying for Fellowships and Workshops. If you have any insight to the process, I’d love to hear about it.

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Checking In

I haven’t been blogging as much as I’d like, because I’ve been so busy writing my scripts. Here’s a sneak peek into what I’ve been up to lately, and what I plan to write about in the near future.

  • How many drafts does it take to get to a final product?
  • Writing with a partner – joys and frustrations
  • Getting those applications off and what not to do
  • Nerdist.com
  • What script evaluations teach me

Success

It’s measured in moments. Tiny increments of achievement, over time add up to significant progress. Sometimes you notice them. Once in a while, someone else notices. Most often, they go unrecognized in the daily grind of life, when you struggle at the keyboard to finish a scene, to edit what you wrote yesterday, to elevate the content from the mundane and derivative to something fresh and captivating.

Suddenly, one day, you’ve arrived at a milestone. You didn’t see it or hear it coming, but you felt it gathering. Maybe you weren’t sure what it was, exactly, but you knew things were shifting, you were getting somewhere. In moments of doubt, you wondered if it was your imagination. There’s only one thing to do. Keep writing.

It’s been a few years now, and you are sending out an application, just like the rest of the world of aspiring screenwriters. That most coveted prize of the ABC/Disney Fellowship dangles before you. You know you’re a serious candidate, that you’d be an asset to the staff table, but hardly dare to hope that anyone else will recognize that. There are many gifted people out there. How do you stand out from the crowd?

So, you call on your most trusted teacher/advisor, and ask him to take another look at your spec script, even though he’s already evaluated it several times. And just to be sure, get a fresh pair of eyes to look it over, too. They tell you it’s good, although those words are not usually spoken in the context of the evaluation. Aside from a few suggestions of small edits, they have no notes for me. In fact, they both say they like it better than the show it’s based on. And in that moment you know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you can really do it. You can achieve your dream and write for TV.

Now you are ready, and you dare to ask for the letters of recommendation you need to include with the application. It seems incredibly audacious, but you ask the friend in the writers’ room who’s too busy to eat if she’ll take a look at your script and write a recommendation. Since she knows how hard you work, and how much you want it, and also because she’s incredibly nice, she says she’ll be honored. You’ve already received another letter from your first teacher, an award-winning filmmaker. You really admire his work, and the praise in the letter is dazzling. He writes as though you are his equal.

You’re calm. Even though you’ve worked years for this recognition, you didn’t expect it. You know you’re ready to move on to the next level. There’s no mania, none of the adrenalin that accompanies forcing the way through things you just have to have. Your brain buzzes with hope and something else. That feeling that you’ve earned your seat and that it’s coming. Maybe you’ll win the fellowship and maybe you won’t, but you deserve it.

That moment is real success. And no achievement will ever feel better.

The Endless Maintenance of Life

Hi all,

When I first started blogging, it was really important to me, and I spent a lot of time making sure I wasn’t putting anything up there that would embarrass me later. In fact, there were times I spent so much time on it, that I stopped working on my screenplays for a while. Inevitably I remembered my priorities, stopped blogging and started screenwriting.

Well, that’s great, but I’ve come to the conclusion that a little balance would make a big difference. I am in the midst of a crunch, working with a writing partner to finish a script by the end of the month, I’m also doing script coverage and meeting with a monthly writers group, and not meeting deadlines on some online articles I promised.

The most positive thing about my screenwriting being at the center of my life, is that my mission and goals are always right before me, ensuring that most of my time is spent working towards them. How awesome is that? The only problem is that I am not just a screenwriter. I’m a wife and mother, a housekeeper (albeit a terrible one), a bill payer, a once-in-a-while administrator for my husbands business, a sister, friend and aunt. Not to mention, I’m a person with a body that needs care after hunching over a computer for six hours a day. Add in sleep, hygiene and meals, along with approximately three hours per day spent watching TV I’m not about to give up, an hour reading and studying, and time for my kids, and two hours for a trip to the gym, plus travel, and it’s no wonder I have no time to do the laundry, or energy to meet a friend.

So how do people find balance, without losing sight of what the real priorities are? If I’m honest, undone tasks get as much in the way of my personal fulfillment as not writing would. Maybe not as much, but close enough. I think the secret is to give a little bit of time to each area habitually, so things don’t smolder into fires that need putting out. 10 minutes of picking up 3 times per day keeps the house reasonably livable, and assuages my conscience enough to delegate some tasks to the kids. My reasoning goes, if I’m not doing it, how can I expect them to? Faulty perhaps, but there it is.

As far as the blogging goes, maybe I don’t have to be so careful. Maybe I’ll put my foot in my mouth and it will come back to haunt me. Maybe it’s not that important and it’s okay to just check in. I’m gonna give that a try.

Napoleon Hills Key #5: Go the Extra Mile

Hill is a great proponent of the theory that you earn what you believe you are worth. If you aren’t happy with what you make, he suggests you do more than you are paid for and that will lead to more pay. However, he also goes on to say that part of going the extra mile is to know when you are in a situation that won’t meet your needs. At that point there is nothing you can do but change the situation.

The first time I heard the concept “you make what you think you’re worth,” I was 24. It was told to me by a boyfriend I met in acting class in New York. Between his accent and his piercing green eyes, his worldliness and sense of adventure, he was the most exciting person I had ever met.  He was here from England on a work visa, earning what to me seemed a staggering amount at the time–$40 per hour. I was waitressing for paltry compensation. I’m sure that by now he is fabulously wealthy, while I’m still struggling with the concept he introduced, and that Napoleon Hill’s book reinforces.

Lately I’ve had a great opportunity to go the extra mile—giving script evaluations.

When approaching a script, I remind myself this is a very important job. Even if it’s a first draft, the script in front of me represents weeks, months and sometimes years of work. It’s an honor to be trusted by the writer to give feedback to help them strengthen the script and realize their vision. I take the responsibility very seriously and I do my best to get the feedback as helpful as I possibly can. I consider it my job to complement the writer on the accomplishment, to be honest about what the work needs, and to encourage the writer to leave the conference feeling inspired and hopeful, motivated to get back to work.

Of course that won’t always happen. Some people may feel criticized, others defensive. Some won’t gel with my communication style. I was lucky enough to have a teacher who modeled the right blend of giving it to me straight without ever making me feel bad or stupid. He also was a great model for going the extra mile, as he would always go above and beyond his responsibilities to go over my work. Now it’s my turn, and I hope to empower other writers by going that extra mile. That means reading the script carefully, at least twice. Then I go through the process of evaluation, and give the writer specific guidance on what steps they can take to strengthen the work going forward. As I’ve been trained, I begin every conference with what works well in the script, and end with congratulations on their accomplishment.

At this writing, I’m a beginner, having only gone through the process five or six times. Each time it gets easier.  Every time I evaluate a script, be it a feature or TV spec or an original pilot, first draft or twenty-fifth, I learn a lot. No matter how rough the draft is, in each script there is something that works; and no matter how good it is, there is always a way to improve on it. But it’s in the process of articulating my interpretations and recommendations that the inner workings of screenplays are revealed. I recognize myself and my own process on the page. There is no question that breaking down scripts makes me a better writer.

For years I have read about successful screenwriters who started as readers and that it played a large part in helping them work out their own process. I feel like I’m already a better writer, and I’ve only done a few!  Imagine how much I’ll have learned when I’ve done a few hundred.  Of course it won’t do any good unless I regularly go that extra mile in my own writing. And as much as I sometimes wish I could ignore  the other important aspects of my life, I can’t: family, home, exercise, social life, spiritual practice, nutrition. Everything I do well makes me a better writer and everything I neglect puts more obstacles in my path. It’s difficult to find balance, but too important not to keep trying. I’ll probably be working on time management until the day I die.

The question becomes, how much is all this hard work worth? How much am I worth? And the answer is… A lot. A whole lot. As long as I’m willing to go the extra mile.

THE HUNGER GAMES Movie Review – SPOILER ALERT!!!

I don’t normally like to review movies, because the act of tearing the work apart is about a million times easier than writing a great script, let alone developing it into a film.  On the other hand, as a student of the screenwriting craft, it is very helpful to examine what works and what doesn’t.  In that spirit, I offer my humble opinions, in the full knowledge that I am in no way qualified to pass judgment.

THE HUNGER GAMES left me a little sad and unsatisfied. I was never bored, or even aware of the passage of time, and for the most part enjoyed the overall experience.  Having read the book by Suzanne Collins and loved it, I think that feeling a little let down by the movie is par for the course.  Would I recommend it? I think so.

Although her performance was fine, I didn’t like the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. The way she was written in the novel, she was much thinner, more vulnerable, and therefore appeared to be an underdog. The half-starved, underprivileged girl in the book made a better contrast to the overfed world of the shiny Capitol. Jennifer Lawrence looks like a champion. She’s tall and athletic, strong and well-fed. Saoirse Ronan, on the other hand, would have been fabulous in the role.

Other than that, I liked the casting. Peeta was played by Josh Hutcherson, and although he’s a little small to be believable as a baker’s son and the wielder of great physical strength, he did a great job of convincing me that he was utterly in love with Katniss. I loved Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the drunken mentor, and would have liked to see more of him. The same holds true for Elizabeth Banks, who was wonderful as the flighty Effie. It took me a few minutes to realize it was her, which was fun.

One thing that worked well for the movie was taking the POV away from Katniss and showing us behind the scenes of the production. It was also interesting to see the Districts. The book was written in first person narrative.  When I was reading, I wondered how I would handle the exposition in those scenes where the explanations happened inside the character’s head. There is so much time that Katniss spends alone that I predicted voiceover narration, which would have been difficult to carry off gracefully. Instead, on TV, the host, Claudius Templesmith, announces in hushed tones that the “Tracker Jackers” are genetically-altered killer wasps. I thought the exposition was brilliantly executed.  I personally would have handled it by giving Katniss more time with her allies. I would have put Rue in the tree with her to explain the wasps. I think the movie’s technique was better.

Another thing they did in the movie that worked was to give Katniss a tangible enemy in the form of President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland and his agent, Seneca Crane, whose job was to keep the games entertaining for their TV audience.  With little or no personal interaction, they managed to throw many obstacles at Katniss and made a very worthy team of opponents. As my friend Shawn pointed out, the scene where Snow is trimming his roses of thorns and telling Seneca of his distaste for “underdogs” like Katniss, is a clear example of the rich and careless extravagance of the Capitol, in contrast to the impoverished persecution and cruelty in the districts.

Something that didn’t work so well for me was that Katniss seemed to get off too easily. When she killed someone, it was self-defense or in defense of a friend, or out of mercy. We never got to see her struggle with a decision of whether to shoot an arrow, or feel remorse for the deaths that she caused.  In the movie, things necessarily moved quickly, but the audience didn’t get to experience her struggle enough to suffer along with her. The PG-13 rating makes perfect sense considering the YA novel it was adapted from, but necessitated a lot less blood and gore than was depicted in the book. It felt like the writers were backing off when the going got tough, rather than letting their characters suffer. As a result, the stakes are lowered, making the victories less triumphant.

Another thing they could have done better was the Main Character Arc. Since the story is about exposing the brutality of making 24 kids fight to the death every year, Katniss’ character arc would have been more effective if she had mirrored that journey in some way. I’ve been told that in an Action Movie, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to grow and change, but I disagree.

In my own fantasy script, Katniss resigns to play by the Capitol’s rules as she embarks on the journey by train.  She squelches her own rebellion to gain sponsors and support to win. Once in the games, she faces the dilemma; whether to kill or be killed. She chooses to survive, but experiences the pain of the deaths she causes, and knows that even if she wins the tournament, the faces of the children will haunt her. She curses the Capitol, and gradually, she fights back. The opponent, Seneca, undermines her, refusing to let her win. Haymitch, in his own arc, pulls himself together and fights for the gifts and help she needs. The low point for Katniss is when Peeta is dying, and she blames herself and surrenders the fight. And Peeta, out of love and respect for Katniss, reminds her of all the people in the districts who are depending on her, and helps her get back on track for the final battle at the Cornucopia. But it’s not over. Seneca changes the rules, in a last-ditch attempt to force her to kill Peeta. Outraged, Katniss, on live TV, says goodbye to her mom and sister, and condemns the Capitol. She urges the districts to fight back.  She and Peeta exchange tearful, moving goodbyes and raise the poison berries to their lips. At the last instant, President Snow comes over the loudspeaker and stops them. Seneca has been fired and for the first time ever, they have two winners. The districts cheer as Seneca is dragged off, struggling against the guards. Katniss is victorious.

“Save the Cat” and my new title and logline

One of my favorite pastimes since before I could read was to curl up with a good book. Yup, I was that dorky kid who read at the playground, on the way to and from school, and even looked forward to getting sent to my room because it meant I could read some more. Not surprisingly, I turned out to be a writer. Even then, I knew I’d never regret the time I spent reading.

Okay, maybe I regretted it when I wasn’t picked to play on the team until last. But at least I always had a place to hide.

Today, I find myself reading a lot of screenwriting books. I also read screenplays, and books on organizing (an area of personal difficulty in which I’ve made great strides), and fiction and blogs and websites, and, of course, the trades. And all of it helps me, but none is as satisfying or rewarding as my how-to books on screenwriting.

Once I’d discovered the world of blogging, I noticed that all the websites I liked seemed to reference their favorite authors, as well.  I’d seen the book, “Save the Cat” before, but never paid much attention until it started to show up on everyone’s list. I’ve just finished it for the second time (I always read them twice, then refer back later as needed). I’m so glad I did, because it was incredibly helpful and informative. I especially love the instructions for finding the perfect logline and title.  And the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet is pretty cool, too.

Thank to “Save the Cat” I came up with a new log line and title for my drama spec. I’d love feedback whether you like it, or if you don’t. If you watch the show, that would really help, too.

White Collar: Into Temptation

Neal sees a portrait of his former life when he and Peter go undercover and join a ring of thieves led by a Swedish femme fatale.

The first two seasons of White Collar are available on Netflix to stream.

A Draft per Month for Twelve Months

A year ago in March, I came to the realization that unless I put my writing first, it was never going to get done. My life needed to revolve around my screenwriting, instead of the other way around. That was when I started getting up at 5 and writing for two hours before my kids got up and the day kicked in. It wasn’t perfect, since some of the time was inevitably claimed by dogs, coffee, and a bite to eat, not to mention regular old daydreaming. For the most part, though, it was quite productive. As they say, an ounce of morning is worth a pound of afternoon.

Every once in a while (or more often), I get a notion that if I’d take that morning time to get other things out of the way, I’d have even more time to write during the day. Inevitably, I try it. Sometimes for a week, or two, or even longer. And every single time, I discover that it doesn’t work. When I get up and write first, I may or may not get back to it during the day, but at least I know I got some writing in and the most important thing was taken care of. When I use the time for other things, like this blog, I sometimes get the writing in later and sometimes I don’t. Inevitably, my project stalls, I lose interest, then have to work myself up into a frenzy of motivation, and get back to my morning writing.

The main reason I am sharing this is to come clean and admit that even though I continue to work hard and improve regularly, I am far from perfect. It’s also good for me to have a written account of the struggle to refer back to the next time I start thinking the mornings could be used more constructively. Maybe I’ll save myself the trouble next time.

Another reason I wanted to reiterate the importance of daily, scheduled, uninterrupted writing time, is that I am seriously thinking about setting myself a new goal of a draft per month for twelve months. In that way, I’ll be building up a body of work samples, flexing my screenwriting muscles and getting closer to those 10,000 hours it takes to master a craft, according to Malcolm Gladwell. I know it’s a very lofty and difficult goal, but the outcome can only be positive. What have I got to lose, after all?

I’ve been writing screenplays for a few years now. I took classes and have a great set of tools to take me from inception through final draft. I have a working support alliance, and I’m evaluating scripts for students at my old school. It’s time to sh*t or get off the pot, as my dear departed Mom would have said. I’d like to think she’d be proud of me. Is there anyone out there who would care to join me in a draft per month for twelve months? Happy writing!

Smashing Procrastination

When I started screenwriting, I procrastinated over the usual things. The kids had to be picked up, the reports needed typing, the bills paying, the housework, the dinner, the DVR with my favorite TV show on it. I eventually realized that if I didn’t give screenwriting a central place in my life and its own home on my schedule, I would never finish anything.

Over time, I learned to put my writing first and everything else after it. It took some trial and error, and eventually I settled into a time slot early in the morning, before the interruptions started.  That worked really well for a while.

Until… I got better at disciplining myself to write, and my procrastination got better too.  While I was writing, it was off doing push-ups. It learned to wait for me to let my guard down, and then pounce.

Sometimes, I don’t even know I’m  procrastinating. Blogging, for instance, has become a major source of procrastination for me. The rationale is that it is an important networking tool, and that I am furthering my screenwriting efforts by sharing what I know. And technically, it is writing. It’s good practice for me to put myself “out there.” In some ways, it really helps me. And so do social networking and discussions and forums and email updates and research and books and trades… you get the picture. Even TV-watching helps me prepare to achieve my goals.

And then there are the really beneficial distractions. I am beginning to read and evaluate scripts. I’ve got two writers groups, one of which I am organizing. The other one is made up of members with far more experience than I (translation — I have to prove my worthiness to be there). Those things will take up several hours per week, but will also make my writing better.

So now it’s not only my family, home, hubby’s business, two dogs, and managing everyone’s schedules, but all those writing-related activities as well. And suddenly, there’s too many important things to get done and no time to work on my White Collar Spec! I’ve gotten away from it without even realizing it was happening. That’s how cunning procrastination is.

So I’m back to square one, having to learn the same lesson. Screenwriting first, everything else second.

Okay, it sounds good, but what does it mean? How do I fight this enormously powerful enemy—procrastination in all its forms?

This is where I need all the tools at my command. First of all, I need to be absolutely clear about what is most important and why. I can look back at my statement in Hill’s Key #1, in which I developed a “Major Purpose.” I can remember how much I want to work in TV, and how all the other things in my life can support that if I let them. I can talk to members of my mastermind alliance, and therefore stay accountable. I can admit it in my blog: I’m not getting much writing done. I can make a commitment: I will finish my first draft by Wednesday. It is more important than the script evaluation due tomorrow, the preparation for my groups, or the laundry that needs folding.

Now it gets a little tricky. See, all those other things still have to get done. They are important and if I try to neglect them, they get in the way of my writing by pulling my focus. That’s another thing I’ve had to learn the hard way.  Therefore, my second task is to make a list of priorities. First priority, screenplay. Second priority, evaluation. Third, meeting preparation, fourth housework.  No, that can’t work. I’ve forgotten about personal care and family care. Those things can’t get put on hold indefinitely.  So here’s the revision:

1.  Screenplay—first draft finished Wednesday, about 6 hours per day

2.  Personal Care (shower, meals, sleep, etc.), 11 hours, 7 left

3.  Kids to school, to home, homework done, appointments kept. 2 hours 5 to go, plus all my downtime gets spent with them and hubby, and meals, too.

4.  Bare minimum of housework (just for this week) 1 hour incl. laundry and meal clean-up, 4 left

5.  Evaluation of script due Monday. 3 to 4 hours, but I’ll start it tonight, jut in case it takes longer

6.  Breakdown of 2 – 4 TV Shows or Movies by Wednesday Evening. I’d better make it 2 TV shows, and get it done Tuesday!

7.  Preparation for Writer Action Group Thursday Evening. Mercifully, it’s mostly done.

8.  Now that I know the priorities, I can map out a schedule so everything gets the attention it needs and I get some downtime, too. Like all day Friday, for starters.

9.  Each and every time I catch that devil procrastination in all its cunning disguises sneaking up on me, I will take a gigantic mental sledgehammer, and smash it to smithereens!

How do you fight procrastination?