Can you be just a screenwriter anymore?

Recently, I struck up a correspondence with a successful screenwriter and asked him for advice on how to move my career forward. He told me that I should focus on making films instead of writing them, because that now was the best if not only way to break in.

Do you think that is true? I was inspired to take up screenwriting by people like William Goldman and Richard Price, who worked in the business solely as screenwriters. That’s what you’ve been able to do thus far in your career. Is it still a possibility?

– Vince
Seattle, WA

While films, short and otherwise, are increasingly being used as the foot-in-the-door for young writer-directors, if your goal is to become strictly a screenwriter, I’m not sure it’s the best use of your time and money. Yes, it’s still viable to be “just” a screenwriter. Not only will Richard Price and WIlliam Goldman continue to work, but new screenwriters emerge every year, propelled by nothing more than the quality of their writing.

What may have changed over the last decade is the degree to which a screenwriter is required to have social interaction. The classic nebbishy writer who gets spooked by his own shadow would have a hard time in modern Hollywood.

Take me. I’ve produced and directed, but 90% of my work consists of pushing words around on the page. The other 10% is crucial, however. It consists of making phone calls, taking meetings, discussing notes, and feigning interest in terrible projects just to be polite. My writing is what makes me hirable, but it’s sociableness that gets me hired.

One reason this sucessful screenwriter may have given you this advice is because you’re in Seattle, and while it’s easy to shoot a film there, it’s harder to come in contact with the people (agents, managers, producers) who can help you get your career going as a screenwriter. Since you can’t do the social part of a screenwriter’s job in Seattle, making a film isn’t a terrible idea. But neither is moving to Los Angeles, which might be the better use of your money.


‘Data’ is singular

rantI make my living writing dialogue — which, like real speech, is largely ungrammatical. Characters say “gimme” and “gotta” and “woulda.” They speak in fragments. Like this.

So I tend to be forgiving when a writer bends the rules, or uses words differently than I would prefer. Split infinitives? Fine by me. Dangling participles? No objection here. In fact, the only choice that drives me insane is when writers cling to false rules. To me, the shibboleth is the word “data.” This, from the Los Angeles Times:

Another 32 million have some information on file, but the data are too sketchy to create a traditional credit score, he said.

Most reasonable people would say “data is” rather than “data are.” Not only does it sound better, but it makes more sense. In this case, “data” refers to “some information” — it’s not clear what the individual bits of information would even be.

In fact, another article in the Times does treat data as singular:

Information security deals with issues such as who should access the data and how the data is stored, controlled, marked, disseminated and disposed of.

My suspicion is that the official style guide for the LA Times instructs writers to use data as a plural; the second writer broke the rule. “Data is plural” seems to be a common mandate. From The Economist’s style guide:

Propaganda looks plural but is not. Billiards, bowls, darts and fives are also singular. Data and media are plural. So are whereabouts. Teams that take the name of a town, country or university are plural, even when they look singular: England were bowled out for 56.

Why would publications insist on such arbitrary and wrong-sounding usages? Blame Latin. “Data” was originally the plural form of “datum,” which means “something given.” English speakers who use data as a plural noun, in constructions such as “these data” or “data are,” do so with conviction: they know intellectually that data is supposed to be plural, so they use it that way.

Unfortunately, many dictionaries disagree with them. From the American Heritage Dictionary:

[M]ore often scientists and researchers think of data as a singular mass entity like information, and most people now follow this in general usage.

Oxford Dictionary says the singular form is fine for us Yanks, and will probably become the rule in the Old World as well:

[T]here has been a growing tendency to use it as an equivalent to the uncountable noun information, followed by a singular verb. This is now regarded as generally acceptable in American use, and in the context of information technology. The traditional usage is still preferable, at least in Britain, but it may soon become a lost cause. Compare with agenda.

Yes, let’s. Following this logic, which I’ll call the Plurican Mandate –

If the word is plural in its source language, then it must be plural in English.

– the following sentences are correct:

(agendum, agenda)
* Let’s move on to the next agendum.
* The meeting’s agenda are long.

(graffito, graffiti)
* The boy was apprehended while spray-painting a graffito on the wall.
* Bathroom graffiti are particularly vulgar.

(forum, fora)
* This is the appropriate forum for this discussion.
* Due to a server problem, the fora are temporarily closed.

Obviously, I feel pretty strongly that blindly following the rules of the source language is ridiculous, or else I wouldn’t have written this interminable essay. But I’m not going to chastise individual writers for choosing the opposite tack. Different things sound right to different people. As long as no one is an asshole about it, Pluricans and Singlecrats can still get along.

All I would ask of the Pluricans is to get off their high horse. Saying “data are” is like an American putting a “u” in “color,” “honor,” or “valor.” No, it’s not technically wrong, but it’s showy, deliberate and vain.

It’s like over-pronouncing Italian at the Olive Garden. No one is impressed, and frankly, we’re just a little embarrassed for you.


Good book vs. movie comparison for ‘Big Fish’

Boxofficeprophets has a well-considered article by Kim Hollis that looks at the differences between Daniel Wallace’s book and the movie version of Big Fish:

John August’s screenplay does take great liberties with the story detailed in the novel. Much is added or embellished, which is almost necessary given the brevity of the book. None of the expansion feels forced or off, though. It’s perfectly in keeping with the story of a man whose life was truly monumental.

You can read the rest here.

Thanks to Daniel for the forward.


Very useful “Dead Zone” writer’s guides

Last week, a reader asked if I could put up an example of a show bible. I didn’t have one to give. Fortunately, ‘DC’ wrote in with a link to the writer’s guides for USA Network’s series The Dead Zone.

The guide for Season 3 weighs in as 108 pages of .pdf goodness, and includes summaries of all previous episodes plus guidelines for aspiring writers. Executive Producer Michael Piller comes from the Star Trek camp, which has long allowed ardent fans to pitch potential episodes — very much the exception to the rule. Kudos to the producers for being so generous.

I’ve never watched The Dead Zone, but if I ever decide to catch up on previous seasons, I now know where to look.


Rewriting based on other people’s notes

questionmark I am about to begin work on a new draft of a script of mine that is currently under option with an Irish Film Production Company. I have been seriously writing for two years (since finishing up my Film & TV studies at college) and haven’t to this day had to rewrite one of my scripts based on outside suggestions.

I was just wondering, what tips you would have on re-writing? Are there any tips? Is there even a standard way of re-writing at all? How should I attack this new challenge?

– Kevin Lehane
Cork City, Ireland

The bulk of screenwriting is really screenrewriting. Whether it’s your second draft, or your seventeeth, you’re constantly trying to make the script better/faster/cheaper/funnier while not forgetting what made you write it in the first place. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Be bold. You always have the old version saved on the hard drive, so why not try that radical idea? The worst that can happen is that it doesn’t work. Even if it’s a disaster, you may discover some great things you can use in the less-radical version.

  2. Have a plan. If you know what you’re trying to accomplish, you’re less likely to hit dead ends.

  3. Don’t confuse rewriting with polishing. Rewriting means ripping apart scenes and sequences and rebuilding them piece-by-piece. Polishing is finding ways to make the writing subtly better: changing words, moving commas, and breaking up sentences. Both jobs are crucial, but don’t polish until the scene accomplishes its function.

  4. When considering other people’s notes, focus on why they had an issue, not how they proposed solving it. If it’s not clear why a beat didn’t work for them, keep asking questions.

  5. Always be willing to kill your favorite moments. To paraphrase Spock: The needs of the movie outweigh the needs of the scene.