Why do you answer some questions, but not others

questionmarkWhy do you answer some questions, and not others? (Such as, well, mine!) And why do you answer some questions moments after they appear, while other ones take weeks?

– Various Readers

My assistant Chad transcribes all the questions on three-by-five note cards, then shuffles them exactly three times. I take the stack and begin spinning clockwise for approximately twenty-two seconds, at which point I throw all the cards in the air. The question that ends up closest to me — without actually touching me — gets answered.

Actually, it’s not nearly so elaborate. Whenever an interesting question comes in, either from ask@johnaugust.com, Ask a Writer on IMDb, or as a comment on a previous post, I flag it as a potential question to answer later. Sometimes, “later” translates as “right now,” but usually there’s a delay of at least a week. Sometimes more. Sometimes never.

There’s no malice or forethought. I simply answer whatever question I find most interesting at the moment. These questions tend to fall into two categories:

The biggest backlog of unanswered questions is “career advice”-type questions. Some of them are really interesting. One reader wrote a script that attracted the interest of a C-list actor a few years ago. Now that same actor is A-list. How should the writer re-approach him?

Good question! I don’t know. And that’s why I haven’t tried to answer it yet.

I really do read every question that gets sent in. Here’s my criteria for whether something goes in the “consider” or the “pass” pile:

  1. Does the writer have a grasp of spelling, grammar and punctuation? If not, they need more help than I can give them.
  2. Have I answered this question, or one very much like it, before? If so, they should just look at the previous answer.
  3. Would a decent percentage of site visitors be interested in the answer? Some questions can be so specific that it’s unlikely anyone else would care.

There are currently 21 questions flagged to be answered. Realistically, I’ll never get to all of them, because new questions will come in that catch my attention. That, and the whole screenwriting career I do on the side.


Sensible sluglines

questionmarkThank you for keeping your site up to date and offering so many great resources, not the least of which: your scripts. I have read your scripts, Rawson Thurber’s Dodgeball, and many others.

I have a question on the usage of slug lines and pacing.

A quick example:

TOM

carefully turns the dial a tad.

THE MACHINE

Hums, LIGHTS UP!

TOM

grins and turns the

REMOTE to the maximum level.

I am afraid I am overusing this technique, but would like your professional opinion.

–Brandon Walowitz
Los Angeles

Yes, you’re overdoing it, at least to my taste. I suspect you could find successful screenwriters who write very much the way you describe, but to me it feels like padding.

Just as you wouldn’t want to read a solid page of 12-pt Courier, you don’t want to read a series of short sluglines. There’s no flow. Think of these short sluglines as punctuation, little guides to help you make your way down the page.

Some suggestions:

  • Use a slug only if we’re going to be looking at something new to the scene, or if we’re cross-cutting between simultaneous action. In your example, “TOM” is the same guy both times, and “THE MACHINE” is probably already established in the scene.

  • After a slug, I usually start the next line lower-case, particularly if it’s the continuation of a sentence.

  • Try to have at least three “normal” lines between slugs.

  • Avoid mixing slugs and dialogue. It gets messy on the page.


New Charlie poster

Charlie PosterI haven’t seen a physical version of it yet, but JoBlo.com has the artwork for the second Charlie and the Chocolate Factory poster. This one shows Freddie Highmore as Charlie, along with his four rotten tour-mates (Mike Teavee, Augustus Gloop, Violet Beauregarde and Veruca Salt).

Before you ask:

  • No, I don’t get any input on posters. I’m just happy my name is spelled correctly.

  • No, I don’t know if this is the final poster, or if there will be a different one for Europe/Australia/Loompa-Land. My hunch is that the marketing people are pretty industrious folks, so there are many other potential one-sheets which may eventually become foreign posters and/or newspaper ads.

  • July 15th is the opening date for North America. I don’t know yet when it will open in the U.K. and other countries.


Back to the Word Factory

This is my soliloquy, spoken directly to the audience, somehow unheard by the other characters onstage: I love to travel, but mostly, I love to get home.

Vacation trips always seem to last one day too long — except when they’re entirely too short. No matter how long the voyage, it’s usually at about the three-quarters mark that I realize I’m not, in reality, a traveling man of leisure. Phone calls, emails, and blinking cursors will always be waiting for me when I get back. Fortunately, so will my bed, my TiVo, and my dogs.

I’m writing this from the lounge at Incheon airport, waiting for my flight back to Los Angeles. Beijing, Shanghai and Seoul were all amazing, not just for their antiquities but also their dynamism. For example, Shanghai’s Oriental Pearl Tower is ridiculous, but worth a visit just for the view from the observation deck. In most cities, you’d see the horizon. In Shanghai, you just count the number of five-story buildings being ripped down to make room for new skyscrapers.

Shanghai feels like New York, Paris and Tokyo crammed together. Seoul, on the other hand, is the metropolis Los Angeles would probably be if there were more than one industry in town. It’s very spread out, but with ample freeways and a competent subway system.

The most fascinating part of Korea was a trip into the DMZ. For about ninety seconds, I was technically inside the North Korean border, with a few thousand armed soldiers ready to shoot if I were to do something stupid, such as pointing with my finger, or trying to defect. (I did neither.)

One weird observation: I loved China, but their national firewall is a pain. It prevents access to giant swaths of the blogosphere, whether or not the sites have anything to do with nationally sensitive issues. Although I could pull up johnaugust.com just fine, many of my friends’ sites were completely inaccessible. (Of course, simply mentioning the firewall may block johnaugust.com. The irony is appreciated.)


Happy Easter from Beijing

I’m in China for a week of sight-seeing, research for one those Someday Scripts I hope to eventually write. The project is very much Old World, so most of my time has been spent tromping around the Great Wall, the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City, getting a feel for the architecture and details that you don’t really find in a book.

While the historical landmarks have been everything I hoped for, the real surprise has been modern China. It doesn’t feel anything like the Orwellian state I read about in high school. All the Business Week articles about China’s rush into a market economy understate the degree to which it already feels First World. People have cooler cell phones. They own their own apartments. Beijing feels like it could host the Olympics next year — although they have until 2008 to finish the new subways and all the other improvements underway.

I’ve been to St. Petersburg, which has a similar beautiful-buildings-to-ugly-cinderblocks ratio, but the mood couldn’t be more different. Beijing feels like it’s on a massive sugar rush, and the people in the park seem genuinely happy. It’s like Los Angeles, with more smog and darker hair. That doesn’t sound like a rave, but it’s actually pretty cool.

My advice is to come before the Olympics, when everyone will see how world-ready it is. Mandarin is notoriously difficult to master, but it’s pretty easy to pick up basic traveller pidgin: hello, excuse me, where is.., is it here?. As I overheard one expat Texan say over cocktails: “It’s easier to speak than to understand.” A great double-entendre, which in this case is true.


Writing vs. relationship

questionmarkHow do manage your time between writing and relationships? Aside from the hours of just you and your computer (not to mention meetings, phone calls, and more meetings), how do you find time for significant others?

I just broke up with a nice girl because I couldn’t make enough time for the relationship. I felt guilty every hour I spent not writing and when I got a free moment, my first thought was writing when it should have been my relationship. How can a writer remain prolific and not estrange him/herself from people? Can the two worlds coexist and if so how?

I don’t want to end up sad and lonely but at the same time I’m unable to compromise my strong work ethic to make time for new relationships (it’s hard enough maintaining the existing ones!)

–Michael
Los Angeles, CA

Unless you work at Wendy’s, it’s always tough balancing a career and a relationship. What’s even harder is balancing three things: a day job, a relationship, and the writing career you’d like to have. So the first thing I’d say is, accept that one of these three things isn’t going to get all the attention he/she/it deserves.

These days, I mostly work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday. Sometimes I have phone calls after hours or on weekends, and occasionally I’ll have to fly to London on five hours’ notice. I get up two or three times a night to jot down things that pop in my head, and I’m always borrowing my partner’s Treo to text-message myself some snippet of dialogue overheard at a party. But from outward appearances, I have a pretty normal working life. So, living with John August the screenwriter isn’t any more difficult than living with John August the attorney would be. That’s a luxury of being able to write as a career.

Back when I was working as an assistant, and writing at night, I had a lot less “free” time. I didn’t go out much. I stayed in on Friday nights and rewrote. I didn’t date a hell of a lot, either. I made a conscious choice to buckle down and get some scripts written. In the end, both work and relationship turned out well, so I guess it worked.

But I’m not sure it was the smartest choice, given my situation at the time. Many writers take ten years before they meet with any real success, and if I’d continued to put writing above relationships, I’d be a sadder, lonelier guy today.

For you, Michael, the better choice might be to stake out some Non-Writing Time, when you deliberately and guiltlessly do the things normal people do, including dating, parties, and watching your sweetheart’s favorite show even though you don’t particularly care for it. Once you specifically block off some Us time, it’s easier to set aside the ten or so hours a week you need for your writing. And if she can’t live with that, well, she can’t live with a writer. Better to know it now.

On a related note, make sure you’re not using your strong work ethic as an excuse to avoid social interaction. Writers are notorious hermits, and that can be dangerous.

During my writing-at-night era, I didn’t go out much at all, but the times I did were often revelatory. An example: I remember meeting Trey Parker at Three of Clubs in Hollywood in either 1994 or 95. Although I’ve never spoken to him since, I know it was him, because this guy was also from Colorado, and he corrected me when I called him Troy. Twice. He told me that he and a friend were making this video Christmas card for a guy at MTV. I felt kind of bad for him, because it seemed like he was kind of struggling.

Of course, that video Christmas card was the original South Park, and he and Matt Stone became successful zillionaires. Seeing the first South Park, I felt some envy, sure, but more importantly I felt inspiration: this guy I met a year ago is now making this kick-ass show. If he can do it, well, maybe I can too.

Obviously, my life didn’t turn on one chance meeting at a bar. But the sum total of all these little incidents really do add up. So whether it’s drinking, dating, or relationship drama, make sure you’re out there experiencing actual life. It will make you a better writer, as well as a more-interesting person.