GUEST PERSPECTIVE: How NOT to Write a Screenplay

Hey, screenwriters–

I’m excited to present a special guest today… William M. Akers, author of the new screenwriting book, Your Screenplay Sucks! 100 Ways To Make It Great, from Michael Wiese Productions, and… my former screenwriting teacher at Vanderbilt University!

Will was not only a great teacher (and my first screenwriting professor ever), but he’s written movies and television for virtually every major network and studio from MGM and Disney to FOX, NBC, and ABC.  He’s currently writing a movie for Overture Films which is being directed by Jon Amiel.  This is his first book… and he’s done an incredible job. 

Your Screenplay Sucks! is a terrific first outing, not only because it’s packed with great info, tips, and insight, but because it has a wonderfully unique approach to working on your script.  First of all, it’s a great book to read if you’ve never written a screenplay and want some terrific first-time-out pointers and help.  But more importantly and uniquely… this is a great book to read if you’ve already learned– or are in the process of learning– how to do it, and want to make sure your script is as good as it can possibly be.

Basically, Your Screenplay Sucks! is a comprehensive checklist of the 100 things screenwriters almost NEVER do… but should.  It pinpoints specific mistakes writers make– such as “you don’t have a killer first page” or “you haven’t buried exposition like Jimmy Hoffa” or “you call shots”– which makes it easy to focus in on specific aspects of your script and punch them up.  And because it’s in checklist form, you can just go down the list, looking at and improving each aspect until you’ve whipped your screenplay into shape.

Also, this book doesn’t use kid gloves.  It doesn’t coddle you and give you warm-your-heart artistic advice like “listen to your heart” or “find the hidden writer within.”  This book is designed to pummel mistakes out of your script until it’s better.  It has sections like “you didn’t run your spellcheck, you moron!” and
“you blew your first ten pages! Arggggghhhhh!” and “you think your
script is special and rules don’t apply.”  Many of the mistakes are mistakes screenwriters at all levels continue to make.  As such, it doesn’t pull punches… it ribs you, goads you, and takes your script to task until its better (which, even in and of itself, is a great lesson in writing with “voice”). 

So do yourself a favor… head to your nearest bookstore, or click HERE to go to Amazon, and grab yourself a copy of Your Screenplay Sucks!  But first… check out the interview I did this week with Will… you’ll learn a bit more about him, the book, and writing in general…

Will… you have a unique career, because you write and teach… and you do both far from the madding crowds of Hollywood.  So let’s begin by learning your path.  Tell me how you started writing professionally… and how you got to where you are today.

When I was in the third grade, my teacher would read to us after lunch.  My favorite book was The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, an English adventure with wolves, sleighs in the snow, and little girls and a wicked governess who kills their parents for their money.  After I got out of USC grad school, I knew I wanted to write, so I looked at things that had been eating at me for a long time, (which make the best subjects for screenplays, btw) and I had never forgotten the book that had been read to me as a child.  I ended up optioning it.  Nine months later, I had a screenplay.  It was produced by Zenith Productions in London.  It found a home on the Disney Channel and I was nominated for a CableAce.  Actually, that wasn’t my first professional gig.  Haven’t thought of this in a while.  When I was still at USC, I was sitting outside the chairman’s office telling stories to his assistant and he came out of his office, pointed at me and said, “Are you a writer?”  I said, “Sure.”  He said, “Come in my office.”  He didn’t know my name.  Someone had called, a manager for child actors, and wanted USC’s best writing student to write a screenplay for one of his clients.  The chairman told him he had just the writer in mind, opened his door, and saw me.  I got paid $1,500 dollars.  Needless to say, the movie never got made.  I love the idea that this manager thought the chairman went through some involved search to get to me, their “best writing student” and he didn’t even know my name.  Easiest way I ever got a job. 

After the first job, I had to get the next one.  I’ve always had an agent in Los Angeles, and if you live out of town, it helps.  But, you can’t sit around waiting for your agent to land you a job.  You have to go out and beat the bushes.  I’ve sold pitches, sold spec scripts, and been hired on assignment.  Every year is different.  Some years, I haven’t worked at all.  It helps to have no credit card debt and as small a house note as possible!  Even when I’m not getting paid to write, I’m still writing spec material.  I tend to write every day, so after a while, that’s a lot of pages.  It’s been a hodgepodge of trying to get work, and failing, and wasting time, and being lucky, and writing and writing and writing.  Sometimes it works and most times it doesn’t.  The key is that you have to enjoy it even when it’s not working.

Right now, I’m rewriting a spec I sold.  Done eleven drafts for the producers in nearly two years.  The script is about the fall of Saigon.  Jon Amiel is directing it, and, under his aegis, the script has only gotten better.  “Development paradise” is not a phrase you often hear, but it applies to this one.  I just sold a pitch about a cop in London, based on a true story, and am waiting for the contracts to be negotiated before I start work.  So there is a bit of activity here and there…

You’ve written and sold numerous screenplays, and now you’ve published a book about screenwriting.  One of the things that makes this book unique is its approach and tone.  It’s not a how-to book for beginners trying their first screenplay; it’s an in-your-face pummeling for people who have written a few scripts and want to whip them into shape.  It doesn’t pull punches or wear kiddie gloves; it’s a brutally honest assessment of the 100 biggest mistakes you see in beginners’ screenplays.  So what compelled you, when you already have a successful screenwriting career, to write this book?  And how did you decide on its unique voice and checklist format?

First of all, Your Screenplay Sucks! is aimed at both beginning and more experienced writers.  There’s a lot in there about generating an idea and how to develop characters and especially what I call “physical writing” — how to write a clean sentence that actually tells the reader what you think it means… That’s useful to a writer just starting her first script, and you don’t often see it covered in books.  As for experienced writers, I’ve heard from people who’ve been selling material for twenty years who said the book reminded them of stuff they had forgotten they were supposed to be doing.  Anybody who is contemplating starting a script, or rewriting one, can benefit.  So much for the commercial plug. 

As to where it came from, I wrote it in self defense.  I’ve been critiquing screenplays for a long time, and I found that beginning writers all make the same mistakes.  Over and over and over and over.  So, I thought to create a checklist so the writer could do all this boilerplate stuff I had to tell every client about, and then send me their script so I could hammer them on structure and character instead of “don’t have character names that rhyme,” “take out thes and thats,” “make your prose crystal clear,” and “beware of research…”  The book’s voice is my voice.  I dictated the first draft of the book, so it’s a breezy read and, for a screenwriting book, pretty funny.

How did the process of writing a book differ from the process of writing a screenplay?  What surprised you about the differences in writing a book?

I wrote a table of contents and a few chapters, sent it to the publisher, and they said “Go for it.” Once I knew it was going to be published, it was a complete blast to write.  Like writing a movie, I suppose, where you know the producer has a put deal.  Not that that’s ever happened to me… I basically wrote it for myself and had fun.  I put in there whatever the hell I thought would be helpful, and that’s what came out the other end.  No development hell.  I rewrote it a lot, but what’s there is what I wanted.  A lot easier than writing a screenplay, that’s for sure.  What surprised me is how much fun I had writing it.

Now that you’ve finished the book and returned to screenwriting, how has going through the book-writing process helped your screenwriting chops and process?  Or has it?

Interesting question.  Act III of the book is about selling your screenplay and dealing with producers and Hollywood, and I have found myself trying to take my own advice.  Weird, huh?  All the painstaking work I did on the rewriting section of the book has helped my first drafts.  There is so much in the book about being clear and concise, that writing it rubbed off on my own work.  

You’ve done what few people are a
ble to do… maintain a successful screenwriting career while living far from the heart of Los Angeles.  How do you do this?  What advice do you have for screenwriters and aspirants who don’t live—or can’t get to—Los Angeles?

Horrible question.  Do you actually want the truth?  It’s a bitch-willy to write and not live in L.A..  I lived there three years as a grad student in film school.  Then three more years getting my career going.  I’m still dining off those six years of living in Los Angeles full time.  For six more years after that, I kept an apartment in West Hollywood and commuted regularly until my sharp-fanged, drooling landlord figured out a way to throw me out.  So, I did put in my time in L.A.  Living someplace else, lobbing scripts at Los Angeles, hoping someone will notice is, if you want my opinion, a fool’s paradise.  You don’t want to confuse hope with denial.  You can win a contest and get discovered, but that’s not easy.  Every agent I’ve ever had came because a friend held a gun to their head, handed them a script and said, “Read this.  This guy walks on water.”  I never had a single query letter answered.  Not one. 

Okay, so much for the depressing part… Now for the advice.  Figure out a way to get to Los Angeles, regularly. Find people who live there who you can meet.  Facebook.  Network.  Lie.  Use the internet.  Use the Creative Directory.  Talk to 18 year old kids about how to do it.  Take a marketing person to lunch and squeeze them dry for free.  Get out there somehow.  Or, get your material out there. 

Of course, the single best (and essential) thing you can do is to write a great screenplay.  Not a good one, either, mind you.  There’re lots of them all over.  In gutters.  Being used to clean windshields at gas stations.  L.A. is lousy with good scripts.  Any jackass can write a good screenplay.  But, keep in mind, they’re not interested in good scripts, only great ones.  So write a great one.  If it takes you three years, so be it.  If your script is great, people will pass your material on to someone they know because it makes them look good.  Great material will open doors. 

Remember, that if you ever do meet someone “real” who is in a position to pass your script on to someone else, your script has to be bulletproof.  You will only get one read.  If it’s not fantastic, they will never read anything from you again.  You have to make it perfect.  Hence the crying need for writers to buy my book or hire me to crit their script before it’s too late! 

You teach college students, so you’re often working with young writers just starting to experiment with screenwriting and storytelling.  What are the top three mistakes you see beginning writers make?

They don’t have a breathtakingly original, wildly creative, non-derivative idea.  They put the backstory in the first act.  They don’t take the time to pare down the scene description and dialogue to the bare stark-white bones.  They have character names that rhyme or start with the same letter.  Their bad guy is poorly constructed.  They don’t separate out the characters’s voices.  They didn’t throw out the first twenty pages.  They don’t have a clue how the motion picture or television business operates.  They are arrogant and think the rules don’t apply.  They argue when you give them notes.  They don’t keep the reader in mind when they are writing.  Those’re probably the top three mistakes.

Your Screenplay Sucks! details 100 mistakes you see aspiring screenwriters make in their projects.  But what are the biggest mistakes you’ve made… both in your actual writing and your career… and what have you learned from them?

Biggest mistake I ever made was when a producer wanted to make a script of mine and I told him… “No.”  The script was autobiographical and I wanted to direct it myself.  Idiot.  The instant I said I was attached to direct, the script died and that was that.  The producer had the financing and everything in place to make the movie and I, moron that I was, didn’t let him make my movie.  I still own the script.  It sits on a shelf, sneering at me.

In my writing, there is not a writing mistake I have not made.  Repeatedly.  I’ve done everything wrong there is to do, but not in the draft I handed in.  I tried to correct the mistakes before I showed the material to anybody in the business.

Another gigantic mistake I’ve made is to allow my heart to rule my head when it comes to choosing material.  The longer I take to decide what to write, the better off I am.  Just because I think it’s a great idea and is something that will easily sell, doesn’t mean it will sell.  I have an eclectic personality, and that is doom when it comes to choosing material.  No one is a master of all genres, and you need to pick the one or two you’re good at and stick with them.  I’ve never written the same thing twice, and that’s a hindrance.  Better to find a groove and stay in it.

Screenwriting is a collaborative art form; screenwriters must know how to work and get along with directors, producers, designers, actors, etc.  Having given screenwriters the 100 mistakes made when writing a script… what are the top three mistakes screenwriters often make during the rest of the production process, when dealing with all the other people and parts of making a movie?

It’s tricky to deal with a producer and their notes.  You want to do the notes that will help the script while tactfully forgetting the ones that are destructive.  Bear in mind that no one, at least I tell myself this, no one is trying to destroy your screenplay, but sometimes people who don’t have a great story sense will give you a note that sounds like a good idea to them, but, if executed, will eventually cause the entire house of cards that is the story, to collapse. 

You have to listen, to everybody, and figure out how to deal with what they say they want.  Sometimes it’s not what they really mean, because they don’t know what they really mean.  That makes it tougher.

Being arrogant is death.  You are not in charge and your goal is to get your story told… not rigorously protect the material from people you may see as Visigoths.  Producers loathe writers who guard every word like it’s sacrosanct.  Don’t fight for every phrase like it’s Omaha Beach.  They’re just trying to help you make your movie.  A movie in a theater that you wrote, that got changed some, is far more valuable and interesting to your career than a screenplay that is 100% unaltered… but that never got made…!  They are paying you to execute the notes, so don’t be a brat.

I just had dinner with a guy who had investors for a project and $20 million to fund it.  They flew in a private jet to meet the writers and tell them the changes they wanted done so they could pull the trigger.  The writers refused to change anything.  The investors got on their plane and flew away.  And the writers still… control… their material!  Whaddya bet their wives aren’t too happy with them?

A simple thing about notes is to write it all down, when you’re in the meeting.  Don’t trust memory.  Write it down, then decide later what you’re going to do and not do.  If you take killer notes, at least you’ll come out of the meeting knowing precisely what was discussed.  I take my laptop to every
meeting, so I walk away knowing what was said.  Then I have a checklist to go through.

You have a unique career, because half your career is dedicated to teaching young writers to write.  And as you say in the dedication of your book, you’ve learned a ton from your students.  So… what have you learned from your students?  What has teaching taught you that makes you a better writer?

By correcting their mistakes, I am reminded not to make those mistakes in my writing.  Their enthusiasm for what they are doing is always contagious, so their fire for the work constantly fuels my own.  I’ve written screenplays with my students, too, and that’s a great way to learn.  Plus, it’s fun to hang out with people younger than I am.  They have different world views and opinions and listen to better music.

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One thought on “GUEST PERSPECTIVE: How NOT to Write a Screenplay

  1. Jeanne

    Great you write this on my birthday & I don’t find out about it till February ’09! Have I got time to read this thing? Ten projects in developmental stages, research, etc on the burners & now I should read?! Probably…I should read…