Extended Q&A With Annual Winner Pamela Schott

The Passion of Minerva Mullen, by Pamela Schott, is the grand-prize winning manuscript (available here) in the 83rd Annual Writer’s Digest Writing Competition, besting more than 6,300 entries across the 10 categories. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, check out the November/December 2014 issue of Writer’s Digest. Click here for a complete list of winners from the competition.

Pamela Schott is an award-winning screenwriter and a contributing author to the Amazon.com #1 Bestseller, Speaking Your Truth. A creative executive who got her start in marketing and advertising as a copywriter in San Francisco, Pamela has written for Creative Screenwriting Magazine and was featured in Writer’s Market 2009, the annual New York Times bestseller for aspiring writers. A wife (of one) and mother (of two), Pamela is currently at work on her seventh screenplay and in pre-production on her first major motion picture, Music From a Scorched Earth.

Can you give us a summary of The Passion of Minerva Mullen?

This is the story of a young girl, circa 1979, on the verge of womanhood, a smart-ass middle child who has the unhappy distinction of being the product of 1) Catholic schools; 2) the military; and 3) a family that really knows how to take the “fun” out of dysfunctional.

Although laden with authority figures, this story belongs purely, solely, and absolutely to the aforementioned school girl, one so-called Minerva Mullen (named for the Goddess of War; her father had big ideas) who has just about had it up to here with all the things she can’t control. Like nuns with rules (and rulers); a dad with orders that send him to sea with every turn of the tide; a posse of brothers who are left to navigate the road to manhood on their own; and a pill-popping, perpetually pregnant mother with a manic-depressive disorder that makes family life anything but livable.

And this is the story of how, having stirred the wrath and ridicule of Holy Name school principal Sister Mary “Battle Axe” Bernard one time too many, Minerva lands in hot holy water and finds herself charged with the impossible task of mounting the school’s annual Christmas pageant to Sister’s satisfaction—complete with a real, live Baby Jesus—or face expulsion.

But can Minerva keep the peace at home, the family in Holy Name’s good graces, and her own cool when a secret crush becomes her first true love?

For all the latch-key kids who remember what the world felt like when Iran took American hostages; who found the fun in a Slinky and Pet Rocks and Pong; who yearned for first kisses, first cars and first place in the spelling bee; and who witnessed the advent of the self help movement—watched, helpless, as their families fell apart—Minerva’s is a story about what it’s like to go kicking and screaming into an uncertain future.

Describe your writing process for this piece.

While it’s not accurate to say that Mineva is autobiographical, there are many aspects of the story that were lifted directly from my childhood. I grew up in a very conservative Catholic family with a dad who served as an officer in the Coast Guard, so my life was a constant cycle of confession and upheaval as we followed him around the world from one assignment to the next. I am also one of nine children (insert Catholic joke here), so naturally, our household was a hive of activity—“controlled chaos” might be the best term for it. What resulted was often loud and messy and unsettling, but there was a lot of love there, too.

My husband had long been on my case to write down my experiences, and so when I finally decided to do just that, the pages came quickly. A normal first draft of a screenplay takes about six months for me to complete, but the first act of Minerva was done in about two weeks.

After that, I put it away for a few years (I went through a rough patch in which I considered giving up on a writing career altogether), but then, in the fall of 2013, I decided to see if I could knock out a completed draft by the end of Christmas. I jumped in where I had left off and again, the words just poured out of me. Before long—and in record time—the script was done.

What do you think are the biggest benefits and challenges of writing screenplays?

The biggest benefits of writing screenplays are actually the same benefits that come with any creative endeavor: you get to play, have fun, and let your imagination run free. On this level, you are powerful and unlimited, and there’s nothing more satisfying than experiencing that.

The biggest challenge to screenwriting that I find is getting out of the way of the characters and what they want to say and how they want to behave. I’ve gotten better at this with time, but I remember in the beginning being overly concerned with how my characters behaved or the language they used because I cared about what people I knew would think of me for making those choices. When I finally realized that a good writer knows how to let the characters come in as they are—flaws and f-bombs and all—I started to care less about what people thought about the end product and more about letting my characters be wholly who they are.

How long have you been writing? How did you start?

I started writing screenplays at night after my two babies were in bed (my daughter, Julia, was a newborn at the time, and she would sleep in her bassinet next to my desk in between feedings). With a toddler, a newbie, and a business to run, nights were best because it was quiet and I could think without interruption. That was 16 years ago. But my desire to work in show business dates back to when I was little and dreamed of being a member of the Mickey Mouse Club. In truth, I was more drawn to their cowboys outfits—white leather boots, vests, hats, etc.—than actually being in front of the camera. But writing was always there, and I was always receiving encouragement from teachers to pursue it on a professional level.

After my husband and I got married, I bought a copy of Syd Field’s book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting and started playing with the idea of writing movies, but it wasn’t until a few years later that I sat down and actually tried it.

Have you published any stories? Won any other competitions?

Since I work in the film industry, I’m not seeking publication. I do have another script that is being made into a major motion picture as we speak, plus an additional screenplay that is being shopped around.

I have placed twice in the Writer’s Digest Annual Competition in the screenwriting category, receiving Honorable Mention for the two scripts I just spoke about.

Who and what has inspired you as a writer?

Nora Ephron has been a big influence in my writing life. I also admire Christopher Nolan (Inception, Memento). I wish I could think like he does so that I could write stories that bend the brain as his do, but my mind just doesn’t work like that. Steven Soderbergh and Steven Spielberg are also up there, and I am inspired every day to write something that either of them would want to direct.

For the “what” category, it’s got to be music that inspires me the most. My life has been informed by the music of U2. It’s layered and poetic and original and sexy, and if I can create something on the page that halfway resembles any of that, I will be that much closer to becoming the writer I want to be.

Do you write in any other genres?

I have tried writing dramatic fiction—short and long form—but it’s too hard. Too much work. In novels, you have to paint with a larger brush to communicate to the reader what you see in your mind’s eye. Screenwriting is more dialogue driven—both in terms of what a character says and doesn’t say—which means you get to leave the heavy lifting on all the other stuff to the actors and director and director of photography and set designers and all the other host of professionals who make a script come to life.

As a screenwriter, while I tend towards dramas, I have also written several romantic comedies and coming-of-age stories. Minerva is a coming-of-age script that is both sad and funny all at once, so I guess this one spans what I’m capable of at this point.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without in your writing life?

My laptop and screenwriting software. Wait, that’s two things.

Where do you get ideas for your writing?

Minerva came from my growing up experiences. My other project, Music From a Scorched Earth, which is now being made into a film, came from an experience I had that sparked a question. Back in high school, I had been inseparable from a friend of mine. We spent every waking hour together, and I loved her and admired her. After we graduated, we took a trip together, and the wheels just fell off the whole relationship. It was very painful for me, and I took the memory of that experience into adulthood and wrestled with it for some time. Finally, when I sat down to write MUSIC, it was with my friend in mind and the question, What is the worst thing that could happen to a friendship that tears it apart, and what would it take to mend that relationship? The script just unfolded from there.

What are some aspects of writing you’ve struggled with? How have you worked to strengthen yourself in these areas?

As I mentioned before, self censoring has been a little bit of a struggle. But, c’mon. Catholic school and the military will do that to the best of us.

Overcoming that censorship has been a process, but when you stop caring what other people think about you, writing gets a whole lot easier. (That’s a good tip for life in general, too.)

What’s your proudest moment as a writer?

Finishing a script is always a proud moment. There’s no feeling like it. But setting up my first motion picture and then winning the Grand Prize in this competition—all within a matter of a few weeks—has topped everything so far. It actually took about two days for the shock to wear off.

What are your goals as a writer?

I’m looking forward to seeing my name on the big screen, to seeing the script embodied by actors, and experiencing the creative collaboration with all of the talented people that will come together to realize that vision. I’m just getting a taste of that right now with MUSIC, and it is an intoxicating cocktail!

Any final thoughts or advice?

Yes. Make up your own mind about the industry that you’ve chosen to create in, and ignore everything that doesn’t fit with that vision. I started writing 16 years ago, and for the majority of that time, I had bought into the whole notion of being a starving artist in a brutal field that’s run by crazy people. And guess what? I made no money, fell flat on my face, and had my share of encounters with lots of questionable individuals.

Over time, I came to realize that the most successful people (successful in all aspects of their lives, not just their careers) don’t think about obstacles or struggle. They keep their eye on what they want, and they refuse to listen to anything that doesn’t match the story that they are telling themselves. They shut out the peanut gallery and go about their business, and we read about them in the trades and hear about them on the news as a result.

If you want to be successful in your field, think like people who have that success. There is a way to get from where you are to where you want to be. Hold firm to your vision, love what you do, and see who turns up to light the path as a result.

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