Protecting your work – the big C

copyrightRecently, I received an email from a highly respectable screenwriting notes service detailing their latest offering: a partnership with an entertainment attorney to help writers copyright their work for a fee. Their pitch was aimed at writers who view the world of intellectual property rights with fear and confusion. Now, I don’t want to tell anyone not to use this service if it makes you feel comfortable, but I do want writers to understand that it is entirely unnecessary. And this particular service, at $85 above the copyright fee, really rubbed me the wrong way.

Firstly, the form they ask you to fill out is copied almost verbatim from the US Copyright Office’s website. If you can fill out their form, you can go online and fill out the official form yourself. Secondly, using an attorney to fill out this form will not make it more official or better protected. It is a monumental waste of money.

Beyond the fact that I feel this service takes advantage of amateur writers, it is also a classic example of handing someone a mackerel instead of teaching them to fish.

So grab your poles, writers, and learn to do it for yourself.

In order to copyright your work (and I highly recommend you do), start by going to the official website at www.copyright.gov From there you simply register with their system using your email and follow along the prompt to fill out the form. After uploading your work you will be taken to a page to pay for it, either $35 for a single author or $55 for a collaboration, and they will mail you the certificate in a few weeks. The questions on the website are relatively simple and straightforward. The only warning is that a screenplay is considered a work of performing art, while a fiction manuscript would be considered a literary work. There are several helpful (AND FREE) tutorials on the government website to walk you through the process.

Copyrighting your work is important to protect yourself and the people reading your work. One of the questions I hear most often at panels and talks is “How do I keep people from stealing my work?” The truth is, you can’t. But you can make it hard. In order for your work to be seen or read it has to be… seen or read. So many writers I have worked with like to keep their projects close to their chests, making sure no one has the opportunity to steal it out from under them. But you can’t do that. No one is actually going to steal your work (I could write an entire post about this, maybe I already have…). In our highly litigious world, it doesn’t make financial sense to take the risk. Hence the pervasive number of release and non-disclosure agreements you will have to sign as a working writer.

The best advice I can give is to get over the fear, sign up at http://www.copyright.gov/, and send out your work to whoever is willing to read it.

Addendum: People have asked me whether registering a script with the WGA is worthwhile. I say it’s your money and if you want to pay the extra $25 for a WGA registration, then have at it. But it must be done in addition to, not instead of, a government copyright.





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Should you self-publish?


The short answer: YES

The medium answer: Yes, as long as what you are publishing has been properly vetted and edited.

The longer answer is more complicated. Let’s look at the downsides first.

  • It doesn’t appear as legitimate as traditional publishing.

People tend to regard self-publishers with a wary gaze. This is quickly changing, however, as more and more well-known authors move toward self-publishing. Now readers are looking for those cool, $0.99 hidden gems. The only people who might have a negative opinion about the legitimacy of a self-published book are university hiring committees and your mother.

  • You have to do you own marketing.

Now this is a major downside. If no one knows your masterpiece exists, no one will flock to Amazon and drop $4.99 to read it. And getting people to not only see your book, but also be interesting in reading it, is much harder than you would think. You need an online base to do some word-of-mouth promoting for you, which means working on your social media presence NOW.

This is the number one question I get asked about self-publishing. How do you get people to read this wonderful book? The answer is you need to build a following. If you’re not on social media, get on it. Twitter, Facebook, personal website, Instagram, Goodreads, etc. Make profiles that are specific to you as an author, away from your personal or private profiles. Then get networking. Make friends who will share and promote your work on their profiles and pages. Unless you want to fork over major dollars to market your work the way a traditional publisher would, you must create a strong online presence. This is not negotiable. And plus, if you do land a publisher or agent, the first thing they’ll want you to do is get online. Not negotiable.

You will also have to do free promotions, giveaways, etc. I’ll get into that in a separate marketing post.

  • If your book is bad, has a lot of mistakes, or is put together poorly, it will not sell and you will have a hard time living it down

The internet is harsh and it’s forever. Don’t put crap out there with your name on it. Get a professional editor or at minimum a proofreader. Invest in manuscript software to take the guesswork out of formatting. My favorite for manuscripts is Scrivener, which is available for Mac or Windows. Make sure people have read your manuscript before you publish. And I don’t mean your sister, or your best friend, or your barista (unless any of those people happen to be paid authors, editors or proofreaders). You must find people who will be honest with you, and then you MUST be able to take their criticism. Writer’s groups are great, but if your group consists of a bunch of hobby writers, this will not count as vetting. Try contests, search for editorial services. Do not be above paying money for this. Believe me, your work will be better in the long run. If you’re self-publishing because you’re a control freak who can’t stand to see anyone reject, criticize or make suggestions on your work, then you are exactly the kind of person who should NOT self-publish.

  • You’ll have to spend some money upfront.

You’ll need someone to do the cover art for you. If you are a graphic designer, this is not a problem. If you’re not, then you’ll have to pay. Cover art is the first thing prospective readers see. It must be eye-catching and intriguing. This is on top of the software, the editing, the proofreading and the hours of time you’ll need to get your book into shape.

Now for the good news.

  • Self-publishing is taking over the traditional publishing business

The stigma of the vanity press is (almost) no more. Good work can stand on it’s own.

  • You will get higher royalties

Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing pays up to 70% royalties if you charge over $2.99 for your book. Under $2.99 is 30%. Traditional publishing, you might be lucky to get 10-20%. Now, the marketing thing comes into play. Let’s do some easy math. If a traditional publisher sells 10,000 copies at $8.99 you might see $8,900. To get a similar amount self-publishing a book at $2.99, you’ll have so sell over 4,000 books. But you’ll have to do it all by yourself. If you don’t have 4,000 friends in your contact list willing to drop cash for you, that means you’ll have to find ways to put your book in the hands of strangers who will. Which is not easy.

  • Self-publishing does not mean you book can not be traditionally published at a later date

The fairy-tale is that your book will do so well on it’s own that it will attract a traditional publisher with whom you can negotiate high royalties because the property already has a following. But for every 50 Shades travesty, there’s a million other equally bad books that languish. But it’s happened before, right?

  • As a new writer, traditional publishers will not spend the big money marketing you and your book

You will end up having to do some of your own marketing anyway. Why not keep more of the money?

  • You will have more control over the end product

We already discussed why this can be bad, but it can also be a good thing.

  • You don’t have to wait for the one acceptance in the vast sea of rejections

Everyone loves to trot out rejection letters publishers have sent to now-famous authors or reference JK Rowling’s origin story. It’s true. Rejection is part of every writer’s life. But if all you want is for people to read your work, we now have the ability to cut out the middle man.

The bottom line is: if you have a book that is ready to publish, and you’re willing to put in the work, go for it.

In the next post, I’ll discuss ways to put your book together so it’s ready for action in the digital world.

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Con Artist

“I write to be the characters that I am not.”
―Joss Whedon

Starting tomorrow the most wonderful event of the summer takes over my hometown. So let’s talk about San Diego Comic Con.  It’s not only a fun-filled weekend, but also a great networking opportunity.

Last fall, like so many others, I woke up a little early and signed into the epic waiting room in hopes of snagging coveted tickets to Comic Con.  Ah Comic Con.  That magical time of year when fans of all sizes dress up as Deadpool and Slave Leia, press together in corrals that would make the calmest of bovines totally insane, hope for a glimpse or a word from their favorite writers, directors, artists and actors and maybe even snag a sneak peak at the next great season or film release.

The first time I attended Comic Con, four years ago, it was a fluke.  I was asked to help out with a panel and got a free ticket.  The panel was on Saturday and I didn’t think to attend any other day and so I was thrown head first into the craziest day of the extended weekend.  I was immediately hooked.  It was a nerd girl’s dreamland.  I roamed with a pack of zombie dancers, took pictures with Dark Helmet and Canadian Batman, touched Han Solo’s carbonite, and went home with a beautiful deck of Game of Thrones playing cards.

The next year I resolved to do things right and get myself an 4-day pass (these are now discontinued), but encountered the dreaded white page of death during the main sale.  My only hope lay in the resale a month before the event and I managed to get a pass for Friday and Sunday.  It was good enough for me, especially when I found out the line up for those days.

Thus began The Greatest Comic Con Ever.

My son was three months old and not big enough for me to leave for the whole day, but he was amazingly portable so I threw a pair of Yoda ears on him, plopped him in a mei tai carrier, stuffed some diapers in my purse and off we went.  He was the perfect Comic Con buddy, not only was he quiet and cuddly, but he very sportingly let me pick every panel and activity.  Plus he was so cute and tiny, everyone was enamored.  Though I wasn’t expecting it, he turned out to be my golden ticket.  I won’t go into details, but I got awesome parking, made it into a couple events and panels I shouldn’t have been able to (calm yourselves, I didn’t cut), was interviewed for two television networks, and even scored tickets to the Metallica secret show.  It. Was. Awesome.

IMG_0810  Everyone loves a baby.  Even at Comic Con.

Last year, with their new randomized waiting room system, I was only able to get a Sunday ticket at the preregistration, and a Thursday ticket during the regular sale. Thankfully I have friends in high places and in the end managed to score a creative professional badge and was able to go the whole weekend as well as hang in the professional break room, and visit some swanky hospitality suites.

Even if you don’t have friends in high places, Comic Con is still worth it. Here are my tips and tricks for a minimally frustrating, nay even great, experience.  Full disclosure, I live in San Diego so I know nothing about hotels, air travel, etc for this event other than book way way early.  These tips are for what to do when you are actually at the convention.

1) Make friends.

This is the number one tip of Comic Con.  This is what it is all about.  Everyone there wants to have a good time, including the staff and volunteers.  So chat up your line mates, joke around with the people sitting next to you, be friendly with the security staff.  I got a great seat in Hall H because I brought extra coffee and offered it around.  I got the Metallica tickets because I had made friends with the people sitting next to me and let them use the flashlight on my phone to check their winning raffle tickets.  I got a wristband for an autograph session because I had made friends with the people in my line AND the security guard manning the distribution.  Etc.  Etc.  Make friends.

This is also where the networking thing comes in.  At my last Comic Con I helped a very tall Black Widow put on gauntlets in the parking lot.  She turned out to be the amazing Fatal Siren (aka Izola Siegfried) and I made a very cool friend.  I usually also use the time to take my LA contacts out for a meal or coffee or something.  Last year I got to have breakfast with super-consultant Jen Grisanti, and hang with Script Chix Miranda Sajdak and Sandra Leviton of Under the Stairs Entertainment. This year I’m going to try to meet up with some buddies from grad school who now have a television show on the air.

If you are or want to be in the businesses that Comic Con represents, it never hurts to network with your fellow attendees.  Or you can go the bolder route of finding people whose work you admire via social networks like Facebook and Twitter and simply ask to take them out.  Now, this is not going to work with David Benioff but it might work with indie producers or lesser known writers. And what’s the harm in trying, eh? Everyone likes free food as long as you’re not weird.

2) Pre-purchase your parking if you are planning to arrive after 5am.

You will never get parking otherwise.

3) Bring food and water.

You think you will take a break to go grab food, and that might be true at the end of the day, but you will spend so much time waiting in lines and in halls that even belly-rumbling hunger won’t convince you to give up your spot.  Bring snacks so you won’t starve.  On Friday two years ago I only had one bottle of water and one cookie between 6:00am and 8:30pm.  I didn’t really feel it until later, but by that time it was serious and I ending up scarfing the contents of random Tupperware from my fridge before heading out to the Metallica show.  I lost almost five pounds that weekend. It’s a fun diet, but not one I recommend. I smartened up the next year.

4) Pay it forward.

Karma’s a bitch, so make sure she’s on your side.  Because of the way they have organized the halls and panels, it is inevitable that you will take up a seat at a panel you don’t really want to see.  I had almost no interest in Fringe, but I wanted to see the next panel in Hall H so I was thrilled when I made it in.  Little did I know that Fringe was ending that season and so it was their last year at Comic Con.  They handed out free hats to mark the occasion and I took a couple, because free.  As I walked around the floor later, a group of very excited people walked up and asked me where I got the hats.  They were fans who had tried to get into the Fringe panel but were unable.  I gave them my hats and we all walked away a little happier.

Remember, everyone is there because they love the same stuff. A friendly con is a happy con.

5) Dress up on Saturday, don’t dress up Sunday.

In reality you can dress up everyday, but Saturday is the biggie for cosplay.  It’s the day of the masquerade, however if you are anything like me, you don’t have thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to spend making hand-forged elven armor.  But there is something magical about dressing up, so even if you slap something halfway decent together you won’t feel out of place grabbing a coffee with Boba Fett and She-Ra.  I have only attended Comic Con alone or with a small baby, so my options before were limited.  With my son I decided to go as Female Bespin Luke with attached baby Yoda.  Last year I did Mara Jade. If you are not a serious cosplayer, find a costume that is comfortable to walk around it.  And for the love of the many faced god, don’t go barefoot.

Sunday is the short day and though there are still many in costume, let this be your low-key day.  Everything is winding down and packing it in.  Go in your street clothes so you don’t have to spend the second half of the day wiping Hulk make-up off your torso.

6) Be smart about purchases.

Don’t buy that life-size Wraith first thing in the morning.  You really want to carry it around all day?  However, morning is a great time to shop.  Ask the seller if they will hold large items for you to pick up at the end of the day (they may not but it never hurts to ask).  If worse comes to worst and you just can’t make the hike back to your car because the Heroes of Marvel panel is starting in fifteen minutes, there is a bag check for a small fee.

7) If you come with others, make it okay to split up.

I met up with my uncle for lunch one day of Comic Con but for the rest of the time we went our separate ways.  He wasn’t going to miss out on Veronica Mars because I was dying to hear The Big Bang Theory’s writers discuss their process.  It’s okay to split up.  Get together for meals, parties and sleeping, but don’t force a group to adhere to one schedule.  Go it alone.  Everyone will survive and you’ll all be a lot happier if you can see the things you want to see without guilt.  Believe me, you’ll make friends in line.  See tip #1.

Remember, Comic Con isn’t for everyone. Don’t force significant others into an all-day anime lovefest if they’re not into it too. Comic Con is a marathon, not a sprint, and not everyone wants to run that long.  It’s okay to split up.

8) Be on Twitter

Lots of inside and last minute info goes out via twitter.  If you don’t have an account, get one.  Follow Comic Con (obviously), but don’t forget to also follow your favorite studios, networks, actors, directors, websites, bloggers, etc. etc. etc.  NerdHQ is a good one to have bookmarked.  In the past they’ve announced their panel ticket sales via Twitter.  You can also keep up with line lengths and star sightings by following the right hashtags.

9) Check out the happenings outside the convention center

If you don’t get a badge, and you might not, Comic Con is still pretty fun.  It takes over downtown San Diego and the Gas Lamp district, so there is no shortage of things to do.  This year I’m going to go the Game of Thrones Experience the Realm instead of panels. Believe me, you’ll probably have to choose one or the other as last year they shut the line down at 11am when they didn’t close until 5pm.

Nerd HQ is another awesome place to hang outside the convention and boasts its own set of panels, entertainment, and even food.

10) Embrace the Wait

You will be waiting in lines. Embrace this idea.  Make friends. Bring food.

Hope to see you all there!

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Notes for Jane Austen

As a writer and MFA graduate, I’ve spent a fair amount of my precious time listening to feedback in workshops and groups.  Now, usually you can take something away from that feedback, especially if you are smart and have surrounded yourself with writers who are equally smart.  But once in a while… UGH.

So this article from Buzzfeed make me snort out Coke Zero all over my computer.

If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop


See the stone cold look Jane is giving Tim? Oh yeah, I’ve been there, Jane.  We’ve all been there.

When you’re done, check out my notes services to ensure it doesn’t happen again! (sorry for the shameless plug)

If Jane Austen Got Feedback From Some Guy In A Writing Workshop

by Shannon Reed via Buzzfeed

Dear Jane,

I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice. I really liked the part where Elizabeth and her aunt and uncle went on a road trip, which reminded me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (also about a road trip — check it out!). Anyway, good job. I do have a couple of notes to share, in the spirit of constructive criticism.

So, a big question I have is “Why?” Why does Elizabeth do the things she does? Why does Mr. Darcy do the things he does? Why does Mrs. Bennet do the things she does? Have you read Hamlet? I feel like you could really learn something from how Shakespeare (the author) has Hamlet tell readers why he’s doing the things he does.

Another problem I noticed: Mr. Wickham (great name, by the way, evoking both a strong but flexible plant, and an earthly, bestial pig) is in the army, but you don’t make use of that. What if Mr. Wickham, instead of just being sort of a scoundrel (Again: why?), is a scoundrel because he’s suffering from his experiences in the war? (Which war, btw?) That way he could tell Elizabeth about it, and we would be able to see that she’s not just an independent young woman, but also a really good listener. He could tell some jokes, too, to liven up the mood, and show that Elizabeth has a good sense of humor. This could be the middle section of the book, like five or six chapters in there.

Also, why five sisters? How about just two? Combine Jane and Kitty. Or, better, make one of the sisters a brother (named “Jim,” maybe?), and then he could be the narrator who mentions his sisters from time to time! Like Hamlet!

While I’m on the sisters, is it just me, or does everyone treat Kitty really badly? Personally, I want to say “Huzzah!” to Kitty, and it’s annoying that everyone else — literally everyone else — wants to hold her back. Even you, I think— and, sorry, don’t mean to hit too close to home here, but… I’m just saying that I would totally court Kitty. She’s got a great sense of humor. But anyway, if you change her to Jim, problem solved!

A few other concerns: Mrs. Bennett is annoying, and you don’t have any people of color. Also, there aren’t a lot of men in this book. Only about the same number as there are women. I was thinking that what you could do is have Mrs. Bennett be dying, but give her a black best friend. Like Othello? (Have you read it? It’s also by Shakespeare, fwiw.) The Othello character could be her butler, maybe? There you go: three problems solved. You’re welcome!

I don’t know if you noticed this, but there’s a lot about hair ribbons here. Did you mean to do that? Maybe you could develop them into a kind of motif throughout, the way Shakespeare uses a skull in Hamlet? Maybe, when Mrs. Bennet is dying, she could ask to hold a hair ribbon? And Othello the butler could bring it to her, and tell her a story, or, better yet, get Wickham in there to tell her about the war. Oh! Perfect: just have Wickham, Jim and Othello talk about the war, while Mrs. Bennet lies unconscious in the background, holding a ribbon.

What do you think about Jim, Othello, and Wickham: Brothers in Arms as a title instead of Pride and Prejudice?

Anyway, while this isn’t something I would pick up on my own to read, I still enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Thanks for letting me take a look, and let me know if you need any more help with it.

Keep writing!

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Once more for the cheap seats

What do you see in this picture?  Well, I’ll tell you what you don’t see: two of the Big Hero 6 characters.  Namely the two female characters, Go Go and Honey Lemon.  Apparently for manufacturers, it’s Big Hero 4 and some chicks.

I’m biased.  Not only am I a chick, but I also have a small daughter who loves movies like Big Hero 6, and though princesses have their place in her world, she’s also very much a tiny fangirl. And unfortunately, the merch is not made for her.

Take a trip through Target with me as we attempt to buy some superhero stuff for my girl.  Sure, there’s a sparkly pink Superman shirt and some Minions gear with hearts on it. Oh wait!  There’s an Avengers t-shirt in the girls section!  It’s pink so it must be for girls.  But what’s this?  Only four Avengers are on the shirt?  Yes folks, even on the GIRL shirt, they left off the only GIRL Avenger.  Why??

Marvel Avengers graphic tee

Now I know this is a writing blog, but this little problem of mine regarding popular merchandise is indicative of the larger film industry. An industry screaming out to girls that this is boy stuff. I’m not going to turn the post into a mommy-rant but it bugs me.

Because this kind of For Boys Only attitude is the same as the one I was complaining about last month. Girls want to play too and we want to see ourselves in the stories, we want to buy the t-shirt, we want to play with the action figure.  Let us give you our money!!  This also means writing some badass women to take names on screen.  I’m doing it, are you?

In the meantime, I’m making my daughter a Rebel Alliance bleach shirt to match mommy’s so we can all play together on May 4th.

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The Bechdel Test

The Bechdel Test Fest promises year-long celebration of test-approved film offerings

This recently came up again in a writers’ group I participate in.  The Bechdel Test.  For those of you who don’t know, the Bechdel Test was introduced by Alison Bechdel’s comic strip and serves to point out gender inequality in film.

To pass the Bechdel Test a movie must have:

1) At least two female characters…

2) who talk to each other…

3) about something other than a man.

Finding films which pass this test is harder than one might realize and even many “chick flicks” and women-centric films fall woefully short. Of course there’s no hope for most of my favorite fandom films, like Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, mostly because someone somewhere along the line decreed that action/adventure/fantasy/sci-fi films only need ONE token lady and maybe a mother figure.  But that’s it people!! Otherwise they’ll start talking about periods and kittens, that there’s no place for that crap in Middle Earth!

The reason for this odd viewpoint, the studios, producers and screenwriting professors cry, is because the audience doesn’t want to watch women.  The “audience” is presumably a bunch of 18-35 year old white males who don’t want to hear women talk in real lyfe much less women in their entertainment, much much less women of color in their entertainment.

Show of hands: who thinks this is horribly underestimating the average movie goer in the year 2014?  This is simply not the world we live in any longer and Hollywood needs to catch up. At the Oscars this year, three out of the eight Best Picture nominees passed the Bechdel Test. There’s definitely a problem here.  And the kicker is that movies which pass the test actually have a better return on investment than those that fail! (source: link)

But is the Bechdel Test the way to solve it?  I’d say it’s a good start but just passing the test doesn’t make it a victory for gender inequality.  It’s a two dimensional, and like any good plot line, the picture needs to be well rounded.  So simply chucking another token female character into the mix and getting her to talk about purses or shoes with the other female character isn’t going to cut it.  Just passing the test isn’t enough.  Think about it, American Hustle passes, Gravity doesn’t. Not that I want to get into an argument about the characterization of Sandra Bullock’s character and feminism, but at least she was the protagonist and an astronaut. (We’ve talked about this before, yes?)

Personally, I like the Mako Mori Test which is passed if a movie has:

a) at least one female character

b) who gets her own narrative arc

c) that is not about supporting a man’s story.

This idea came about after Pacific Rim was deemed to have failed the Bechdel test, but supporters of the character Mako Mori had other things to say. (Daily Dot)

But again, this by itself does not mean the film is “feminist” (whatever that means) or good or that women will automatically flock to it.

Let’s use these tests not as the be-all-end-all of what films should look like, but as a bare minimum starting point as we move closer to gender equality.

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Anatomy of Films

This gem comes to us from cartoonist John Atkinson.  Though it’s supposed to be a joke, it’s pretty spot on.**

anatomy of films

** Not to be used as an actual outline for your film!

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Revision revisited

editing-by-Sueharper-dreamstime_xs_21643751The difference between good writing and bad writing is also the bane of many a writer’s existence: revision.

If writing is hard, revision is impossible.  But necessary.  Oh so so SO necessary.

I’ve talked about killing your babies.  I’ve talked about walking away from your drafts.  I’ve talked about taking feedback.  I’ve talked about proofreading.

But what about before all that? What if your major revision involves cutting for length because your script is woefully too long?

First let’s tackle how long is “too long.”  Screenplays should be no longer than 120 pages max.  Absolute max.  And even shorter for genre or comedy scripts, somewhere in the 90-100 range. Pilots should be 60 pages for hour-long drama, and 30 for sitcoms (you can sometimes stretch this to 70 and 40 respectively). Shorter is usually better, because the first thing a reader will do is flip to the back of your script to see what they’re in for.  If it’s longer than these numbers, the reader will automatically assume that you don’t know how to tell a story concisely.  They will judge your work as amateur right out of the gate, and though they might continue to read, they will be looking for ways to prove themselves correct.  Of course there are stories of success with longer scripts, but honestly, why make if harder for your script to survive?  Why weigh it down in the shark-infested waters of the query sea? You have to trim the fat.

“But my script has no fat! It HAS to be 130 pages! There’s nothing I can cut! Can’t I just play with the margins?”

NO!!  Every writer can come up with a bazillion reasons why every last letter is absolutely positively vital to their work. Stop making excuses.  You can cut, believe me, repeat after me, you can cut.  Grab those scissors kids.

Start big.  What scenes don’t you need? Go through each scene and writer down what is happening, making sure each scene drives the story forward. If it’s not contributing to the plot, axe it.  Even if it’s the best scene you’ve ever written.  Cut, paste into a new document and save if for another day.

Then look at the arc of each scene.  Yes, each scene needs a beginning, middle and end.  Find out where the meat of your scene starts and make sure that is the beginning.  Cut character arrivals and departures unless they are necessary to the plot.  Start in media res, in the middle.  Do you need to show your character walking into the bar, introducing herself to the bartender, ordering a drink, etc etc? Or can you just start with her at the bar with her drink in hand?  Begin the scene with action and leave hot. Cut boring entrances and exits.

Look for superfluous characters.  Are there minor characters who serve the same function?  Combine them into one to save space and reader sanity.  Strike character descriptions for unnamed character.  We don’t need the full backstory of the waitress taking your protagonist’s burger order or a physical description of the taxi driver with no lines.  Obviously this doesn’t fly for your main characters.  See my post on character introductions for some quick tips on those crucial words.

Trim the exposition. Make sure any exposition is happening in the scene, not in the description, and don’t overdo it.  Too much exposition is clunky and rings false.  Try cutting out the set-ups and see if the story still moves forward.  If it does, you obviously don’t need it.

After all this, go small. Cut a few seconds here and there, tighten up the dialogue, cut a line or two of action.  Find the white space and maximize.  A couple 10 second cuts will soon add up to several minutes.

For more info, here’s a great post from the inimitable John August on how to cut for length. Link

Happy trimming!

PS If you really need to muck with formatting, the only acceptable thing to do is to make sure you only have one space after each sentence.  I still can’t remember to do this until the end.  Old habits die hard.

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Kids these days

My daughter is a story-teller.  I would pay cash money for an ounce of preschooler imagination; there’s really nothing like it.

While driving in the car today to get ice-cream, my precocious 4-year-old gave me this little spiel:

D: “Mommy, did you know I have two favorite towers?”

Me: “Yessss! Are we starting Tolkien early??”

D: “The Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Eiffel Tower.”

Me: “Oh. Ok, still pretty cool you know those landmarks.”

D: “Yep. Now, can you be quiet? I’ve got to make a phone call.  Sacagawea is in trouble and she needs my help.”

She proceeds to “dial” on a large cowrie shell she found in the car.

D: “Hello?  Sacagawea?  Calm down.”

I’m so in love.

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Writing Collaboration: Finding your life-partner

I had a question from a writer friend about collaboration and how my writing partner, the fantastic Mr. Brendon Udy, and I “make it work.” My answer at the time was simple, we’re friends.  But in reality it’s so much more complicated than that.

Writing is traditionally a game of solitaire.  Just a person, a pen (or keyboard), and maybe some alcohol, cigarettes, Diet Coke and M&M’s, or insert other vice here.  But once in a while, two heads can be better than one.  Other times it helps just to have someone else to share the pain. Most of the time this is what it feels like:


I think I’ll take you back to the beginning of our special relationship so you can fully understand where we come from. Brendon and I met at a screenwriting conference in LA where we were both pitching our baby scripts. Being LA outsiders (I’m in San Diego, which might as well be New Zealand, and he’s actually in New Zealand) it was easy to find other outsiders to hang with apart from the in-crowd. We’re both relatively good pitchers and had a fair number of bites, but nothing serious. I loved the concept of his script and we agreed to keep in touch. It wasn’t until a few months later and a lot of script trading that Brendon asked me to help him on an outline for a contest with a female protagonist. He has amazing, high-concept ideas and I’ve got good follow-through. After success with the outline (which eventually became our screenplay Transfer) we agreed to help each other with a couple scripts we were stuck on. That turned into a some contest submissions, a pilot, a few more feature scripts and the rest is collaboration history.

Why it works: We both have our strengths and weaknesses.  He’s better at action, I’m better at dialogue. He has great ideas, I’m able to run with them. Our styles complement each other and even when we work on the same sections of script, you can’t tell it was done by two different people. But best of all, we don’t get butt-hurt. This is the single most important element to a good writing partnership, the ability to not get butt-hurt when your idea or dialogue or character gets changed or vetoed. To be able to recognize when someone can do something better than you and to get out of their way.  This is key! And most writers are really bad at it. It’s hard to kill your own babies; it’s nigh impossible to let someone else assassinate them. But it’s necessary if you want to be a successful collaborator.

And let’s face it, it’s good practice for when the people who buy your work gut it right in front of you like a Baratheon bastard.

So if you want to collaborate, first you must find someone whose work you respect and admire. Then make a conscious effort to work WITH them, which means knowing when to tell them like it is, when to get out of their way, and when to use both your powers to break the story.

Wishing you a long and fruitful partnership!

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