I need your help: Book recommendations, please!

So many of the novice screenwriters I meet and work with ask me, "Can you recommend some good how-to screenwriting books?" 

Virtually all the books I come up with are at least ten years old...and some are 20+ years old! So, I'm asking YOU...

What recent how-to books have you found especially helpful? 

Please post your choices in the comments below or email me at TheWorkingScreenwriter(at)Yahoo.com. 

Also feel free to let us know WHY you made these choices (though not required).

Please, book recommendations only.


Your screenwriting questions answered! (#3)

Many thanks to those who have sent in their questions about screenwriting!

Q: How long should it take me to write an outline? 

A: Depending on the story, mine take anywhere from two weeks to two months to sketch out. Once a solid outline has been crafted, the actual scriptwriting process usually proceeds relatively smoothly. Based on my typical writing pace of 2 to 5 hours per day, I usually crank out a workable first draft in 2-6 weeks. Of course, subsequent drafts—which lead the way to the final submission draft—could take a few weeks, to several months longer. But there’s a lot to be said for getting that first draft done. It’s a real psychological boost to have those 100 pages of neatly bound text in your hot little hands. Once this first draft is completed, the subsequent drafts seem far less daunting.

Q: How long should my outline be?

A: Mine generally run anywhere from 25-35 pages. (I recently sent a producer a 46-page outline.) But I’d say nothing less than 15 pages (12 pt. type, single spaced). In my opinion, anything less than about 15 pages just isn’t detailed enough to do you much good. But, as always, see what works best for YOU.

Q: Can my script deviate from the outline?

A: Of course! Changes along the way are inevitable and welcomed. If I could put numbers on it, I’d say 75% of my scripts are based on the outline and 25% are wrought from discovery along the way. 



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Your screenwriting questions answered! (#2)

Many thanks to those who have sent in their questions about screenwriting. This is the second batch of your questions and my answers. More to come!

Q: I’m always getting writer’s block! How do I get rid of it?

A: As far as I’m concerned, writer’s block is nothing more than a form of total, absolute and complete laziness. Face it, you’re just not willing to sit yourself down, put on your thinking cap and plumb the depths of your creativity. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that’s what screenwriting is all about. So get used to it.

Do whatever you have to do, but force yourself into your writing mode every day. Whatever it takes. And believe me, once you get rolling and ideas are flowing, you’ll wonder what all your apprehension was about. However, if you still find it near-impossible to park yourself in front of that keyboard, and/or if you continually have trouble coming up with ideas, and/or you’d prefer to watch Championship Knitting on C-SPAN rather than crank out script pages, then this might be the universe telling you, “Sorry, pal, you’re not a screenwriter.”

"There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write." - Terry Pratchett

A fellow writer posted the following on one of the screenwriting boards. I liked what I read (mainly cuz I wholeheartedly agree with every word of it).  Here it is...

I don't believe in writer's block. Most of the “serious” writers I've known don't, either. I agree with the one who says, “It's an indulgence of amateurs. When you've got a contract with a deadline, you either turn in a manuscript or return your advance. You may find writing difficult and your results unsatisfying, but you do it anyway, because that’s what professional writers do: they write.” However…

I do believe in the realization that if your current work is of poor quality it should be abandoned. (Don’t delete it—the idea may be worthwhile even if the execution isn’t.)

I believe in inadequate preparation.

I believe in inadequate organization, too.

I believe in writing yourself into a corner so tight that you either need to start over or abandon it.

I believe in lost enthusiasm for a particular work.

I believe in lack of focus, in not knowing what your story’s really about and why these characters should tell it.

I believe in increasing boredom with an entire genre that’s become too familiar.

I believe in well-crafted characters you don’t want to spend time with. (And if you don’t, nobody else will, either.)

I believe in stories that require a daunting amount of preliminary research before you can write. (“Sure, that’s it—a police procedural following a serial killer who’s targeting milliners in 1910 Belgium!”)

I believe in shyness and lack of confidence that makes seeking expert advice or background hideously difficult or impossible.

I believe in not knowing how to start, or where to start, or even if you should start.

I believe in finding the need to learn basic writing mechanics and screenplay format so boring or off-putting that you’d rather procrastinate than spend the time it takes (which isn’t much for format).

I believe in concluding that your whole concept is stupid, immature, derivative, impractical, embarrassing, too personal, legally actionable, or any of a host of other fatal flaws.

I believe in realizing that you're not as good as other people—the ones who ought to know, like teachers and fellow writers—think you are.

I believe in realizing that you're not as good as you think you are—or ought to be.

I believe in that “what’s-the-use” attitude after you learn that your first several screenplays are probably going to be pretty bad regardless of the blood, sweat, and tears you give them.

I believe in the inability of young writers to write characters well beyond their own age and, regardless of research, situations well beyond their experiences—and I believe in the incredible frustration of being young and bursting with ideas that you shouldn’t tackle yet.

Now, any of those can stop you dead in your tracks and keep you stopped. The question then becomes: How can you get started again?

Give yourself permission to write utter crap. Lousy ideas, poor grammar and spelling, stilted dialogue…Write it anyway. Nobody has to see it. Written things can be revised or rewritten to improve them. The blank pages of the “blocked” remain blank.

Change your writing environment. Try something radically different. If you write on your computer in a quiet room, try a spiral notebook in a park or coffee house, or ruled paper on your grandmother’s dining room table. (Not recommended: your blood on walls.)

Perform writing exercises. Writing something different may free you.

Move physically. Play a sport, go for a walk or run, swing on a playground, whatever you like, but get your blood pumping. When it's racing through your body, the brain gets plenty of oxygen—and ideas.

Give yourself blocks of unstructured time when you’re not likely to be sleepy. Find a quiet place, think about your current writing project, and let your mind wander. Rein it back to the subject as needed. This can be combined with physical movement—a long walk may be an idea wellspring!

Play What If…? with what you see. What if the kid cutting your sandwich suddenly plunged that knife into the woman at the cash register? What if he merely put caustic chemicals in the mayonnaise? What if the sandwich and kid are fine, but you choked, right here at your table? What if you gave half your sandwich to that lady over there who looks poor? What if she thanked you for it by giving you something valuable (that she didn't think was worth more than the sandwich)? What if you sold it and couldn’t find her to give her any of the money? What if she found you and demanded all of it? What if...

Write daily, every day, no exceptions, for a set amount of time. If you can't write, you must remain in your writing environment for the set amount of time anyway. Your choices are a) write, and b) don’t write. No games, no internet, no texting, no TV.

Stimulate your mind with new experiences. If you're a movie fan, see a play or watch a street performance. Hear live music rather than CDs, or listen to something in a genre you know nothing about. Eavesdrop on or observe people unlike most of the ones you know. People-watch (and invent lives for passers-by). Attend a sporting event (any kind, at any level) where you don't know anyone and watch the crowd rather than the players.

Upon waking, jot down the surrealistic snippets of whatever dreams you remember. They don't mean anything, in my opinion, but the odds are good that they're packed with drama.

Just do it. You don't want to be a self-indulgent amateur, right?

© 2011 by Maryn Blackburn.  Used with permission.


Your screenwriting questions answered! (#1)

Many thanks to those who have sent in their questions about screenwriting. This is the first batch of your questions and my answers. More to come!

Q: I want to write screenplays, but I don’t know where to begin. What’s the best way to get started?

A: My best advice would be to spend some time immersing yourself in studying the art, craft, and process of writing a screenplay. Read a few how-to books (yes, my book Q & A: The Working Screenwriter would be one excellent choice!), then read a handful of scripts that have been produced. (Google search “movie screenplays free” and a lot of great websites will come up.) Also, watch the movies that were made from these scripts. Then, re-read some (or all) of these scripts. But just don’t read them, study them. By this point in time, you should have absorbed enough information to give you a good push toward starting your first script. Finally, sit your rear end down in a chair—and write. No, I’m not going to tell you to write an outline (more on this later), and I’m not going to tell you to write on a computer, or with pen and pad. Some things you’ll have to figure out for yourself. Trial and error. Learn from your mistakes. Discover what works for you and what doesn’t for you.

DO THE WORK. It’s the only way you’ll truly learn.

Next, you need to slog your way through the first draft of a script. Any script. Any genre. Just get that first draft done. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. (As a famous writer once said, “Don’t get it right, just write.”)

When this draft is completed, give it to three or four trusted, intelligent friends and get some opinions. Find out what worked for them and what didn’t.

Did any scenes drag on too long?
Was the dialogue realistic?
Were any of the characters unrealistic or one-dimensional?
Were they involved in the story?

Armed with this feedback, slog your way through a rewrite. Again, how you do this is entirely up to you. Figure it out. Some writers work only on their computer. Some, as I do, always print a clean copy of their script and attack it with a red pen, then transfer the changes on the computer version. Maybe this process will work for you and maybe it won’t—but that’s for you to discover. That’s what screenwriting is all about—discovery. No two screenwriters have the exact same method. Whatever works. Don’t get it in your head that you’re writing your first script with the intent to sell it. The chances of selling any script ain’t high and the chances of selling the first script you ever write are...well, virtually nil. First scripts are for learning purposes only. It could take 2, 3, 6, 8, 10 scripts before you write one that’s saleable. Chances are pretty decent that you’ll NEVER write a saleable screenplay. Screenwriting is both an art and a craft and not everyone is equipped to be an artist or a craftsman. I wish I could draw pictures, but I can’t. I can barely scratch out a decent stick figure. But that’s life. Problem is, screenwriting has become the new sporting event and everyone’s jumping onto the field. Everyone’s got a computer, everyone can get a scriptwriting program, and everyone has seen a movie and said, “I could write a better movie than that!” Can you?

So, give this screenwriting thing your best shot—work your rear end off and write, write, write...and see where your journey takes you.

Q: How long should it take me to write a feature-length screenplay?

A: Somebody once said, "It takes as long as it takes—and not a moment longer." For the most part, I’d agree. But, if you're taking two years to complete just one screenplay, I think there's a problem. (However, if you've turned out something akin to Gone with the Wind or Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the end of those two years, then it was time very well spent!) Also, if you're writing a spec that nobody is actually waiting to read, then taking your sweet time is fine. But, if you get an assignment (i.e., work-for-hire) and if a producer gives you a deadline to meet ("I need the new draft by 5PM tomorrow!"), then the leisurely pace you've established for yourself will be unacceptable. So, the upshot here is that it’s good to be able to work quickly and efficiently.

Q: Should I outline my script before starting the actual screenplay?

A: I’m sure you’ve heard it a bazillion times before, but I’ll say it again here: It’s like going on a cross-country trip without a road map. You might—might—end up at the intended destination, but with the map, you’ll save yourself a lot of gas (not to mention headaches).

Over the last several years, I’ve had numerous conversations with first-time writers, and many have said, “I’m stuck on page thirty and don’t know where to go.” I’ll ask them, “You didn’t outline your script, did you?” Nope, not one of them did. That’s what happens. You get this great idea, you come up with a solid start, maybe a bit of the second act, then—BLURP—it just falls apart.

As far as I’m concerned, outlining is where the real work comes in. It’s where you test-drive the story and determine if it’ll all work. It’s where you work out all the pivotal details, where you track characters, where you plot the twists and turns. It’s where you work out the subplots and get a feel for timing and flow.

So, yeah, I feel outlining is an integral part of the screenwriting process and I wouldn’t start any script without some type of semi-detailed outline.

I always hear people say, “But if I write an outline, it stifles my creativity.” I’m not sure I understand this. The outline is where you’re supposed to explore your creativity! Go crazy, try things, see what’s gonna work. Believe me, it’s far less aggravating making those inevitable storyline changes and reworking those twists and turns in a 20-page outline, than in a 110-page screenplay.

But go ahead, write your script without the outline, and see if you can get across the finish line with a coherent story. It’s very possible that you can. However, if you get in the general vicinity of page 30 and say, “Um, now what do I do now?” you might want to consider an outline. (Search this blog for “The Outlining Process.”)


Questions about screenwriting??

Do you have questions about the art, craft and business of screenwriting? If so, let me know and I'll post my answers here on my blog. 

Should I accept a "dollar option" deal?

Are screenplay competitions "the" route to success?

My screenplay is 150 pages--can I still sell it?

Do I REALLY need an agent or manager to sell my script?

Pose questions in the comments section below or email me at TheWorkingScreenwriter(at)yahoo.com.


I'll be starting a new assignment later this month and I'm lookin' to fill my time doing some critiques. 

If YOU need a critique on your latest screenplay, I hope you'll get in touch. 

I can do a BASIC critique or an IN-DEPTH critique. 

Get in touch via email and I'll provide more details and pricing. 

Thanks, Jim

Some "Susie's Beast" news...

A short film I wrote recently won a nice little award at Film Slam. 

Congratulations to director Chris Williamson and his cast and crew!

# # #

No witches, warlocks or vampires...
just a sexy tale about a guy trying to live the Hollywood dream...