John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this Episode 288 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters. Today on the podcast, we’ll be looking at what screenwriters can learn from figures in the news and what I learned from going through the copy editing process on my book. Plus, we’ll be answering listener questions about moving to Los Angeles and whether to use a pen name.
John: Craig, this last week something the first time happened to me here in Paris. I got sick. I got a cold. And my question for you is, when you get a cold, when you get sick, do you keep writing, or do you just stop?
Craig: Oh, interesting.
John: Because I had this debate on Monday whether I should try to work through it or just call it a day and play videogames. What do you do when you get sick?
Craig: I wish that I were the kind of person who could learn any lesson from my own past. I am not. I am as stubborn as a mule. When I get sick, every single time I say, “Not a problem. Keep going. Keep going.” And then I just find myself suddenly feeling tunnel vision-y and confused. And I just go, OK, apparently it’s time for bed. I’m the guy that still thinks that when a doctor says you need lots of rest that he’s just joking. [laughs] He’s a goof, right?
John: Well, you look at what we do, and we’re not working construction. And we’re not working in public service jobs, like a waiter who is going to get other people sick, so I feel like I’m at home, so why don’t I just keep working? But on Monday I realized like I was so sick that I could do real damage to this script. I just worried that I could actually make things noticeably worse by trying to work on it. And so I mostly just kind of vegged around. And then there was one new scene to write, and I could write that sort of by itself. I could sort of like lay there and shiver and think through the scene. And I wrote that one.
Craig: Aw. Poor John.
John: I got over my cold, but I almost like asked on Twitter, because I couldn’t trust my own judgment, so I was going to run a Twitter poll to say, “This is how I feel. Should I work today or just play videogames?”
Craig: Actually, that’s my theory about why it’s hard for us to do this, and why we don’t trust our own judgment, is because when we were children the only time that we ever made a determination about our own health was when we decided to fake being sick. Otherwise, somebody would say, “You’re sick.” And we would go, “Yeah, seriously. It feels terrible.” Right? But otherwise it’s like, ah, I really don’t want to go to school today. I’m kind of on the bubble. Let me wave the thermometer by the lightbulb and stay home.
And so I think that carries through to adulthood. I just always feel like I’m just – I don’t know – goldbricking, as the old folks used to say.
John: Yeah. I worry that I’m faking it. You know what, I probably could work on that scene. But I don’t want to work on that scene. Because procrastination in an illness are similar kind of symptoms. I just don’t want to do that. Almost anything else would feel better than working on that scene right now.
Craig: Yeah. Well, I love that you thought you would get good answers on Twitter, because I wish to god I could have, I don’t know, organized some response so that you put that up there and suddenly it’s like 98% of people think I should work.
John: All right man. I’ll do it.
Craig: OK. Twitter told me.
John: OK. Twitter told me to.
Twitter told you something as well this past week. There’s some follow up on last week’s episode where we were talking about Hollywood falling apart. What was the follow up here?
Craig: So Twitter user Nick Webber pointed out that I was incorrect when I said that Napster showed up in the early ‘90s. It did not. It showed up in 1999. I don’t know what kind of brain fever was raging through my head there. And I understand that Mike August also pointed out how wrong I was, hopefully to his great joy.
John: Yes. Mike, my husband, is very, very good about when things happened. And I’m not. I just have no skill at that at all. So like you could say, “Oh, you know, back in the caveman days, in the 1400s,” I would – I mean, it all just kind of blurs together for me. So there’s the past, there’s a future, it’s all kind of the same. I’m so much in the moment, Craig. I’m right here, right now. That’s all I worry about.
Craig: Love it. I’m all about the future, man.
John: You are?
Craig: Future Craig.
John: What is Future Craig most excited about?
Craig: Oh, Future Craig is, well, Future Craig actually – if Future Craig comes true, Future Craig could have some really cool news for everybody very, very soon, career-wise news.
John: Yeah, that’s good.
Craig: But Future Craig could also be curled up in a ball crying, which is usually what Future Craig ends up doing.
John: I’ve noticed over the last few months that Future John has been much more nervous about making predictions about projects because you have enough movies made, enough of things happen, and you sort of know that there’s a bunch of bumps coming. And so you don’t know when they’re going to come, so when I talk with my team about like, oh, these are the things. But there’s a very likely chance that this will just not happen at all. It’s because, you know, I’ve just been through this – it’s not my first rodeo. I’ve been thrown from the horse enough times.
Craig: That’s exactly right. It always hurts, but it does hurt less than it used to. If you get thrown off the horse at your first rodeo, I presume you think, “Well, this is it. I’m just going to be thrown off my horse over, and over, and over.” But, you know, then you have a few successful rodeos, and I’m not sure how that’s defined exactly in the rodeo world. Like how do you win the rodeo? Can you win a rodeo?
John: There’s judging. There’s the amount of time you stay on the horse. There’s things you do.
Craig: Yes, time.
John: The Bucking Bronco.
Craig: That’s right. There was a movie, it was called 8 Seconds. Do you remember it?
John: It was called 8 Seconds. Yeah.
Craig: With the guy from 90210.
John: Luke Perry.
John: What new TV show, what hot new TV show is Luke Perry starring in right now?
Craig: Um….you’re asking me?
John: This is my thing where I stump you on current events in popular culture.
Craig: Luke Perry is currently starring on – it’s called Mummy Dad.
John: No, but that would be great. Mummy Dad would be great. Because he’s both a mummy and a dad?
John: I like it.
Craig: It’s a great title. I mean, that’s going to show up on Nick. I feel like that’s going to show up on Nick next year.
John: 100%. Luke Perry is playing Archie’s dad in Riverdale.
John: The CW show.
Craig: And that’s sort of like the gothic David Lynch take on Riverdale?
John: Yes. Craig, really good. See, you got that part.
Craig: Well, you know, I love – did you know that I love Archie comics? Did you know this?
John: I had no idea that you loved Archie comics. So tell me about Archie comics. I don’t get Archie comics at all, so give me the one-minute pitch for Archie.
Craig: Sure. Well, by the way, this is why I will never watch this show because it’s not – it’s an alternate take. I want the real take. I want real Archie. So, my sister and I, we lived in a fairly small house. And we had to share a bathroom. And I had no reading material in the bathroom whatsoever. My sister would pile the bathroom high with Archie Comics Digest, which would include Archie, and then there was Betty and Veronica.
John: Of course.
Craig: Then there were some that were just Jughead based.
John: Wow, just Jughead.
Craig: Just Jughead. But, you know, and on occasion you’d get a little special one like a Dalton issue, who is always great, or Moose and Midge. Big Ethel. Here comes Principal Weatherbee. I know all of them. Mrs. Grundy. I know them all.
I know their last names. [laughs] Just kind of crazy. And so I would read them. It was either that or reading her Seventeen Magazine. And after two issues of Seventeen Magazine, you realize every Seventeen Magazine has two articles. One article is How to Look Sexy. And the other article is Don’t Have Sex. It’s the worst magazine ever. They should just call it, you know, Mind-F Magazine.
But regardless, I would just the Archie Comics. So I have read thousands of them.
John: I’ve never read a single Archie comic somehow. And so just through popular culture I knew just Archie, Betty and Veronica, and Jughead. I knew that those were four of the characters.
Craig: Well, you know Reggie, right? You know Reggie Mantle?
John: I have no idea who Reggie is.
Craig: So, Archie Andrews, Better Cooper, Veronica Lodge, Reggie Mantle, Jughead Jones.
John: Yeah, that makes sense.
Craig: Moose – ooh, I’m missing his last name. I’m not an A plus on Archie trivia. But, yeah, Reggie was the jerk.
John: OK, yeah.
Craig: He was Archie’s competition.
John: So it’s a TV show on the CW. So if you want to watch that show, you can watch that show and see Luke Perry there. A long way back around. So, usually we start with our leading topics and we get to our questions and we sort of rush through them. I was wondering if today we might want to start with our questions and really focus on them to begin with.
Craig: John, you know, that if you ask something my answer to you is yes. Always.
John: Our first question comes from Dorian in Tempe. And he wrote in with audio, so let’s take a listen.
Dorian: Hey John and Craig. My wife and I are having trouble deciding when we should move to LA. She’s a preschool teacher and I’m on my last semester of film school studying screenwriting. Because of the school year and her contract, we have to choose between moving in July of this year or moving out in January of 2018. So I guess my real question is should we wait until the winter before staffing season, or should we just move out as soon as possible? Yours in perpetual umbrage and grace, Dorian Chin. PS, hi Godwin.
John: All right, so Dorian, first off, welcome to Los Angeles whenever you do come. You need to decide July or November of next year, or January of next year.
Craig: January, yeah.
John: I say now. I think you’re honestly better showing up now, because people always say like, “Oh, I’ll move right before staffing season,” but it takes a while to get your bearings. I think you should just come now if you can.
Craig: Oh, Dorian, this is one of those days when you reach out to the people that you think are wise and they don’t help you at all. Because I don’t agree with John.
John: All right. Great.
Craig: I think you should – if your wife is working and earning money, and it sounds like you are not, because you are in film school, you should make as much money as you can before you get out here. You can start writing now. You can start working on spec scripts that you could then lob at studios, but I would always err on the side of saving up as much as you can. Unless your wife is able to line up a new job in LA. If she can, then of course you would come out here as soon as you can. And I would strongly urge that you consider that. This town is punishing to the unemployed. And you can presume that even if you are a fantastic writer, and I hope you are, there will be a break in period at a minimum. So, just make sure that you guys are financially secure. That’s the most important thing. I don’t want you and your wife to end up like so many couples do when money trouble happens.
So, my advice isn’t necessarily different than John’s. It’s just, I guess, a different angle.
John: Yeah. I agree with Craig that Tempe is probably a much cheaper place to live than Los Angeles, but there are preschool teachers in Los Angeles just as there are in Tempe. Dorian can get a job in Los Angeles. Dorian can probably get a job that’s more interesting or relevant to filmmaking in LA than he can in Tempe. So, usually if people are like just out of college, like if they were a senior in college and they just graduated I’d say move to Los Angeles immediately, because you’re used to being able to go someplace to live cheaply and just get started.
Now that you’re already married, you don’t have any kids yet, this might be a great time to do it, but yes, you always have to be mindful of your finances. But if you’re going to wait, waiting till January isn’t necessarily a better way anyway, because you don’t know that your situation is going to be any more stable or grounded in January than now. I’d say move.
Craig: All right. Well, just, Dorian, if your wife kicks you out, you know who to blame. It’s not me. I was your friend to the end.
All right, our next question is from Stuart in Minnesota who writes, “In the upcoming months I intend to submit my television pilot to a number of competitions to make my first foray into the business. These contests don’t let you put a name on the script itself, but the submission forms require a full name. Makes sense. However, I do not want my legal name attached to my script. I have a pen name that is only slightly different from my legal name, same first name, different last name. So as far as I can tell, registering my script with the WGA requires my full legal name. If I submit my script to contests under my pen name, am I running any legal risks or conflicts because it does not match up with my legal name? Should I just bite the bullet and submit under my legal name to avoid confusion? Should I just change my name legally to avoid all this hassle?”
Well, John, you changed your name legally. What do you think about all of this?
John: I changed my name legally. So, August was not my original last name. My original last name was an unpronounceable German name. And I changed before I moved out to Los Angeles, partly kind of for this reason, because I didn’t want the first 15 seconds of every conversation being correcting how people mispronounced my unpronounceable German last name. And also just for ease. Like John August is just a very easy name. And that’s been really useful.
So, Stuart in Minnesota, if you really intend to use this other name, not just for your work but in life, yeah, you could change your name legally. It’s not a bad thing to do. I’ve very much enjoyed having a simple name for my life. It’s been really good.
But, you don’t have to do that for a pen name. And a lot of people write under different names than their actual legal names. I cannot imagine that for this screenwriting competition the difference between your pen name and your legal name is going to be a factor. I wouldn’t let that freak you out. Use your pen name. Use whatever name you want to be identified as as a writer. Down the road at some point, you may need to file some paperwork. Do something to make it clear that this is your pen name. There is a WGA process for making clear what your pen name is. But that’s not really where you’re at right now.
For this form, for this competition, just use whatever name you think you want to be as a writer and send it in and win the competition.
Craig: Yeah. This isn’t really a problem, Stuart. I mean, let’s say your given name, the one that you didn’t want to use, your legal name was Stuart Smith. There are a million Stuart Smiths. Right? So people don’t care so much about the actual words of your name. That’s why we have Social Security numbers and addresses and other things that identify us. If you register your script with the US Copyright Office, which I should say is preferable to registering it with the WGA, I believe you do have to give a Social Security number or some other identifier – driver’s license number, passport number, and your address. I guess you’re concerned that maybe somebody that has your real name or your pseudonym would say, “That was my script because it’s my name.” That’s not the way the world works. I wouldn’t worry about it right now. The only issue really is later down the line, business wise, professionally, what do you actually want to call yourself? Call yourself that. But no legal issues now.
John: We’ve talked about the registering your script in previous episodes, so we’ll try to find a link to that episode. The really short version of this is people always freak out about registering the script with the WGA. That’s just a simple registration service. It’s not an ironclad contract. It’s no sort of like guarantee. It’s just a way of proving that at a certain point you wrote this thing.
What Craig says about registering with the US Copyright Office, the reason you do that is because it provides greater protections in case someone does infringe on your copyright. A lot of writers do neither of the above and it’s also fine and good. If you do register with the WGA, don’t put that registration number on your script, because it’s a dead giveaway that you are a brand new writer who is not versed in the ways of the business.
Craig: Dead giveaway. Do you listen to the Schmoyoho guys? The Songify this guys?
John: I don’t what that is.
Craig: You know the Songify this guys?
John: Oh, of course, the Songify people, yeah.
Craig: They’re the best.
John: They do Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt song as well.
Craig: That’s right. Or was that song in their style? I don’t know if they did it. I’m sure they did. We’ll check it out. The Gregory Brothers. Great guys. They have an excellent one – Dead Giveaway. It’s one of my favorites. Dead Giveaway. So good. I love those guys. And girl. They are guys and girl.
John: They’re fantastic. All right, let’s get to our main topics for the day. First up, Presidential Spokesperson Kellyanne Conway seems like a fictional character, but her real life way of speaking offers some fascinating insight for screenwriters. And a really good counterexample to some of the points we made in our episode a few weeks ago about dialogue. So, this is my true confession. Because I’ve been living here in France, I don’t see cable news. And because I don’t see cable news, I never actually saw her speak. I was only sort of familiar with Kate McKinnon’s impersonation of her on Saturday Night Live. And I love Kate McKinnon. She’s brilliant. But it wasn’t until I saw a clip of Kellyanne Conway where I was like, oh no, she’s actually a very different thing from what Kate McKinnon is doing.
Kellyanne Conway, she’s the Trump spokesperson, but she’s the spinner. And I had never actually sort of known what spinning was until I saw her do this thing. And it’s like, wow, that was kind of amazing. Spinning is actually a really good way of describing because it was like those talented acrobats who can spin a bunch of plates while walking on a wire. I just sort of couldn’t believe she was doing it and making it seem not effortless but like it was just a fascinating thing to watch.
So, I wanted to find the clip of the thing that I had seen, and I couldn’t quite find it. But go online and look at how she speaks because it’s really just a fascinating thing she’s able to do.
Craig: Yeah. It’s really instructive, too. Again, we’re just taking the politics out of it. If you’re writing a character who needs to evade someone’s interrogation, she has so many methods of evasion. They’re all evasive. And they are designed to make the evasion portion of the response as short as possible, and then the offensive part to redefine and refocus the conversation the longest part. So, she is – and all of these people to some extent – they are a master of, some of them call it pivoting, some of them call it spinning. Sidestepping very quickly and then attacking. It is an amazing thing to watch.
John: Yeah. And the thing I noticed in this clip, and this was before I read this article we’re going to link to, is that she could listen for the words the person was saying to her, and use those words in a completely different context and make it seem like she was answering the question when she really wasn’t answering the question at all.
So, a really great write up of sort of what Kellyanne Conway does specifically is by Lili Loofbourow. And so I’m going to put a link to this in the show notes. She’s writing for The Week. And she defines some of the terms that she sort of sees Kellyanne Conway doing. She talks about Agenda Mad Libs, Faux Frankness, Impatience Signaling, which is both a verbal thing, but also how she carries herself. When the other person is going on too long, she sort of shrugs her shoulders and like, oh, we’ve got to get on with it. It’s a way of sort of taking away that person’s power. Downgrading Confrontation to Repartee.
Craig: That’s the best.
John: It’s like, no, we’re just chatting. Sexisming, which is basically making it seem like it’s a sexist attack when she’s being pushed too hard. Ice Queening. Mothersplaining. Schoolmarming. Cool Girling.
I really urge you to check out sort of how Loofbourow defines these terms, because they’re so specific and so clever. And they feel accurate to the ways in which Kellyanne Conway is able to apply the different techniques to sort of escape from all these things. It’s like a Houdini way of getting out of an argument. It’s really quite ingenious.
Craig: It is. And I think it’s really valuable for screenwriters because it cuts to – I mean, this article in particular that analyzes her cuts to the underlying psychology and subtext of the words we use. And this woman is doing it on a very high level. Kellyanne Conway does it on a very high level. And so, for instance, Imply Bad Faith. And this goes a little bit back to our dialogue discussion about those connecting words. When she is responding to George Stephanopoulos, she says the following, “And you know full well that President Trump and his family are complying with all of the ethical rules, everything they need to do to step away from his business and be a fulltime president.”
Now, the second part of that is not true. Sort of factually. But the first part, the key part, the part for screenwriters to really carefully look at is, “And you know full well that Trump.” And what the author here, Lili, what Lili Loofbourow – what a great name, Loofbourow – what Lili Loofbourow points out about this Imply Bad Faith, she says, “Note how gently this implies that Stephanopoulos has in some unspecified way mislead the public on the point to follow. And the implication in “and you know full well” is I’ll tolerate your unfairness, but not your dishonesty. That is a brilliant amount of stuff to shove under this little tiny cluster of words. Instead of saying, “Trump, blah, blah, blah,” to say, “And you know full well.” There is this wonderful dialogue undermining of the person, as if to say everything you’ve said you know is a lie and we all know it’s a lie, too.
And then you follow it with your own lie. It’s brilliant. Brilliant. Brilliant screenwriting. That’s what makes scenes sing, you know?
John: It is. And what I also think it keys into, which we talked a lot about in the dialogue episode, is that the point of dialogue is to change the other character’s, what’s happening in the other character’s head. You’re trying to create a change of mental state in the other character’s head. But when you see these two talking heads talking, they’re really not trying to change each other. They’re really both trying to communicate to the person watching them. And so they have to pretend as if they’re having a conversation with this other person, but they’re really trying to have a conversation – their point of influence is the person watching the conversation.
And that’s what they’re trying to do these sort of emotional signals for is to say like, no, listen to what I want you to feel. This is what you want. This is what I’m trying to get you to understand. Not the intellectual words, but the feeling behind what I’m saying here.
John: And so when I say, “You know full well,” it’s like that other guy, he’s being dishonest. He’s being emotionally dishonest and we all see this, right? It’s really quite ingenious.
Craig: It is. There’s another use for this in a strange way. Kellyanne Conway says these things obviously intentionally. She knows what she’s doing. It’s her job. It’s why she’s paid. But, if you imagine people saying these things earnestly, you have a very funny character.
Craig: There’s a great line from the first Hangover where Ed Helms says to Zach Galifianakis, “You are literally too stupid to insult.” And Zach says, “Thank you.”
So, here’s one. It’s called the Walkback. This is another one that Lili describes here. The day after an interview aired with a straightforward response, the White House response is that he’s not going to release his tax returns. The day after that, Conway annihilated its usefulness with this. “On taxes, answers and repeated questions are same from campaign. POTUS is under audit and will not release until that is completed.”
Now, what’s amazing is that she’s saying, B, yesterday we said A, today we’re saying not A, and the answers are the same. But by saying the answers are the same, you have confused everything. And if you have a character that literally can’t see that those answers are different, that’s a funny character.
John: Yeah. It’s great. And so looking back at our dialogue episode, we talked about sort of how important it is for characters to listen and there’s a very special thing that’s happening here. It’s like she’s listening enough that she can gather up the material she needs in order to say basically her monologue back. And so it has the aspect of a conversation, but not really – it’s not really fully a dialogue. It’s really sort of two intercepting monologues.
And that can work if one of the characters is trying to do that.
John: The challenge comes if too many characters are trying to do that. And so Kellyanne Conway does sort of feel like a Sorkin-y kind of character. Like one who is so hyper-verbal and able to keep spinning things. But you can only have a certain number of those people in a scene, otherwise there’s no one to be able to hit the ball back to her. It’s like she has to have someone to keep throwing her stuff, because it just won’t work.
Craig: Absolutely. I mean, what this says, the act of spinning or verbal evasion is essentially it’s cheating. You are cheating at the game of conversation. You are willfully violating conversational conventions. You are dismissing from the start the purpose of good faith conversation in order to achieve something. You can’t – it’s no fun watching a game where two people are cheating. It’s interesting watching a game where one person is cheating and the other one is trying to hold them to the rules. And that’s what these interviews are like with her.
Craig: But in a screenplay and in a scene, you can have one person cheating. And I think it’s also important to note that if somebody is inveterate conversational cheater in your screenplay, the audience will draw a conclusion that they are sociopathic. You have to be aware of that. I mean, sociopathic behavior is not limited to killing people. Most sociopaths don’t do that at all. But conversational good faith is one of those things that indicates that you have a certain moral character or pro-social point of view. And a repeated violation of those rules is the opposite.
John: Absolutely. And what I think is important to note is that by all accounts the Kellyanne Conway we see during one of these interviews is not the Kellyanne Conway in the green room beforehand. And apparently she’s incredibly charming and incredibly nice and gracious during those moments. And so that’s part of the reason why she’s able to keep getting invited back.
And so it’s maybe worth thinking about your own characters is there a performance version of them and then a backstage version of them? And the performance version of them may have some of these characteristics that you wouldn’t be able to stand that character for the whole time, but if you can see behind the curtain and see what they’re able to do when sort of no one is watching.
Some of George Clooney’s characters have this trait where they are so on and then you can see what they’re really like when they’re not in that full glare of the lights. It can be a really nice contrast to see the two sides of that person.
Craig: Yeah. Well that is certainly another place to go with somebody like this, which is to reveal to the audience their conscience. I mean, we hope – look, I think all of us hope, and that’s partly why Kate McKinnon’s impression of her is so endearing – we hope that Kellyanne Conway at home in private thinks to herself, “Oh god.”
Craig: “Ugh. I hope this changes, because this is very, very hard and I don’t like doing it. I believe in this guy,” I don’t know why she does, “but I believe in this guy, I believe in the program. It’s just that I am in a terrible position each day and I hope that changes.” You hope that that’s the case.
John: So, we’ve talked about sort of Sorkin characters, and you can imagine this in sort of a Sorkin world. But as I was looking at sort of the things that she’s doing, I got to thinking of another show that has a tremendous amount of like really rich dialogue which is Game of Thrones. And yet there’s not – I don’t see characters like Kellyanne Conway in the Game of Thrones situation. And I feel like in most of the talkie-talkie-talkie scenes I see in Game of Thrones, there is a listening happening. There’s always a sense of because you said this, this is the way I can respond. It’s never that sense of like I’m just going to plow through with my point. But do you feel that, too?
Craig: Oh completely.
John: Are there moments in Game of Thrones that are more Sorkin-y? I’m trying to remember, I’m thinking back to – because there’s some true sociopaths in Game of Thrones.
Craig: Oh yeah.
John: I mean, I don’t see them doing quite this.
Craig: Well, no, they don’t do this. The sociopaths usually just reveal their sociopathian quiet moments to another person as a fact and then try and explain to that person their point of view. The most notable example is Littlefinger’s speech to Varys, I think it’s at the end of Season 2. I’m not that good on seasons. Where Varys is saying to him, “Look, what’s going on here, you’re doing bad things that are going to cause trouble and that will lead to chaos. And chaos is a pit.” And Littlefinger says, “No, chaos is a ladder.”
John: “It’s a ladder.”
Craig: And then he goes on this speech about how he sees chaos. And you realize, oh my god, this dude is definitely a sociopath. And he’s definitely scary. But what he’s saying has merit. It’s the ugly truth. I don’t know if the guys discussed it with us when we did our live show with Dan and Dave, but at some point I remember them saying that when they wrote their first season, because it was their first time doing television, they were short. Their episodes were too short. And they had to go back and shoot a bunch of padding scenes. And those padding scenes inevitably for cost purposes had to be two people talking in a room. And they said those are some of the best scenes of the series, because these characters would fence with each other, going back to our dialogue discussion – not at the viewer, but with each other. And it was very much about a little fight. And you always felt at the end – I always feel at the end of a Game of Thrones scene where two people are talking that one person has won. And that’s wonderful.
John: Yeah. It is a wonderful thing. All right, so that’s Kellyanne Conway. I just thought it was a terrific article. We’ll have a link to that in the show notes. And obviously we could spend the rest of the hour talking Melissa McCarthy’s brilliant performance as Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live.
Craig: Oh god. She’s the greatest.
John: But I think it’s been discussed enough. But like it’s so remarkable to see someone I’ve known and loved for so long just have a moment in the spotlight there and just steal that moment and smash that moment and just make it the best moment of the week.
Craig: Isn’t it just the best part of it is that Hollywood really is not a place where the good guys win. You know? Sometimes, but most of the time bad people do. She is the best person. It’s so – it’s so nice to be able to root for somebody who just can’t not win. She wins every time. And I root for her every time because she deserves it. She’s just wonderful. And, god, was that good. Oh, so good.
John: Yeah. So our second big topic is words and specifically the words I encountered as I was going through the copy edit on Arlo Finch. So, longtime listeners will know that I sold my first middle grade fiction book. It is a fantasy book called Arlo Finch that will be coming out March 2018, hopefully.
John: And I just went through the process of I turned in the book, we went through the notes with the editor, so three passes with that. Just went through the copy edit. And the copy edit is the stage that screenwriters never encounter. So a copy edit is when the manuscript goes into a different editor who goes through it word by word, line by line, checking not just for mistakes but also for little idiosyncrasies of grammar, timeline checking. It was like an autopsy of your book.
And it was overwhelming but also really cool to do. So, two weeks ago I had to sort of go through and look at this Microsoft Word document where she had marked up all of her questions and changes and notes. And what I had anticipated, and this is common, is that in this Word document she will actually just change the things she wants to change.
John: And then if I want to not change that, I have to mark it as Stet, which is Latin for like leave it the way it was. And then it goes back to the previous version. And so as screenwriters we’re never used to sort of like our script is taken away and they get redone by somebody. That just doesn’t happen. So as a screenwriter, a script supervisor might go through and mark stuff up for her purposes, but it’s never sort of taken away from us. And this sort of got taken away. And so then I had to go through and really look at all of her changes and see which ones I agreed with and which ones I didn’t agree with.
It was a really scary but kind of cool experience.
Craig: That’s remarkable. And I assume that many times when she made a change, you didn’t accept the change, nor did you stet it. You came up with your own twist?
John: There were quite a few times where there was a third way. Where I could definitely see what her objection was and I would word it a different way, or I’d find a way through it. A lot of times she was catching things like, you know, two pages I ago I had used this unusual verb and it just felt like too soon to use that verb again. I so appreciated her doing that, because especially in a book there’s just so many words that it’s so easy to get lost in them. And she was good about not getting lost.
But I wanted to talk about some of the things that were sort of unique for me coming into it as a screenwriter because there’s just things that I never encounter in our normal screenwriting profession. The biggest thing, of course, with writing a book is this is all written in the past. And so screenwriting is a present tense form. We use the past when we’re in dialogue, sometimes, like characters can speak in the past tense, but everything else in the script is the present tense. And so to write a book that was in the past tense, I was like, oh well, it’s just in the simple past. But you’re actually using two kinds of past. You’re using the simple past and you’re using the past perfect.
And figuring out the split between those two was not as straightforward as I would have guessed. You tend to use the past perfect when you’re pushing things further back in the past. So, if the present of the scene is in the simple past, then if I need to indicate something that happened before that moment, I go into like he had walked home that time. But within the course of a sentence, you might be using both forms. It was a really strange thing.
And particularly where when you start doing contractions.
John: So like he’d done this, as you speak you often drop off that D. But you need to put that D there for writing. So it was so many of the mistakes I was making were because I had sort of left off the D of the past perfect.
Craig: Well, it makes sense. I mean, you’ve been doing one kind of writing for so long. It’s not that you don’t know how to write prose, but we have a certain writing mind. And when you get into that writing mind, it’s only natural that you would – certain of these things would just feel unnatural. And some mistakes are going to be made.
It’s a wonderful thing to have an editor there whose job is to catch those things. I have someone who works with me and that’s her job, largely, is, well, to listen to me blather and write down notes, but then also when she reads things she works like an editor. Every writer should have an editor. The sad thing about screenwriters is we don’t have editors. We have, well, we have what we have, don’t we? [laughs]
John: Yeah. So I’m very lucky to have Godwin. So Godwin reads everything I write. And so he proofreads stuff. But it’s a different thing than proofreading. Proofreading, like I leave out words all the time, so he’s always catching that kind of stuff. But this was a very fussy kind of thing. So, here’s an example of sort of the ambiguity that would become a problem at points. Take this sentence: On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she mistyped the date.
Is that OK? Or, do I need to say, “But she had mistyped the date?” Or I could say, “She’d mistyped the date.” Was it OK the first time, or did I need to put in the–?
Craig: I would prefer, I think both of those would be acceptable because I would understand them. But I would prefer that the verbs would agree and both would be in the had form.
John: Yep. And I think that would generally be my preference, too. But listen to the difference in this version. So rather than saying mistyped, let’s say mistook. So, “On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she mistook the date.” Or, “On Wednesday, Carole had emailed the entire office about the party, but she had mistaken the date.”
So, that’s one of those situations where because mistook and had mistaken are so clearly different, the sentence really feels very different. Like you notice that change so much more dramatically.
Craig: Yeah. I agree. And those are tricky things. I mean, I assume that ultimately the name of the game is clarity, so that no one is confused.
John: Yep. The other things I ended up going through a lot about where the Oxford comma. I’m not an Oxford comma person.
John: Yeah, you’re an Oxford comma person, aren’t you?
John: So, here’s the thing is I’m entirely a fan of Oxford commas when it clarifies situations that could be ambiguous, but it ends up being a lot of extra commas in places where you don’t need them. Particularly I find if I have three characters in a sentence doing something, it ends up being like one extra comma in there that becomes just really frustrating and annoying.
Craig: Yeah. I think that if you’re talking about subjects of sentences, then I don’t even know if the Oxford comma applies there. So if we said, George, Alice, and Jim went to the mall, I would not put George-comma-Alice-comma-and Jim went to the mall.
John: Oh, but the copy editor would put a comma there.
Craig: Yeah. So to me I reserve my Oxford commas for the objects or the ends of lists. I would not put them in the subjects because I actually want to imply a conjoined action.
John: Yeah. Which makes sense to me, too. So there were a lot of situations where that, where I had to go through and Stet those kind of things and have an overall discussion about commas. But here is another thing which if find I had never encountered before. So, Craig, I’m going to give you a sentence, please tell me what word you’re going to use.
John: So there’s an object in the distance. You’re moving in a direction that will bring you to that object. You are headed ____ that object.
John: All right. I would absolutely say “towards.” I’ve said towards my entire life.
John: And so Toward and Towards are – you are an east coast person, I’m a Colorado person. It’s a Colorado book. Everyone is saying towards in my book. But I had to go through and there were like 17 times where I had to go through and Stet the Towards back to Toward.
John: My whole family says towards. I called my mom to ask her what she said. I double checked.
John: There’s other words that are just, they’re on the cusp. And so what I found very useful was to do – Google has what’s called an Ngram Viewer which will show you amazingly all the books that they’ve scanned and they can check by year what word is more commonly used. So you can compare two words.
So, knelt versus kneeled. Which one is preferred right now? Craig?
Craig: I would use knelt.
John: Knelt is still preferred. Kneeled is catching up quick.
Craig: Really? Interesting. OK.
John: How about the difference between each other and one another?
Craig: They sent messages to each other. They sent message to one another. I would go each other.
John: OK. And do you know what the “rule” is between the two choices?
Craig: Well, I’m trying to think. They kissed each other. They spoke between one another. I would put one another as the object of a preposition.
John: No. So the difference is supposed to be each other is two people, one another is more than two people.
Craig: Oh, OK. Oh, so if three people are in a polyamorous relationship, they kissed one another.
John: It’s all about kissing with Craig.
Craig: OK. Yeah. Yeah.
John: Which do you think is preferred right now: clearer or more clear?
John: You’re correct. Weaved or wove?
Craig: Ooh, he weaved a tale, he wove a tale? I would say wove.
John: So, I actually had a debate about this. Weaved is a different word than wove. So, it turns out there are two verbs, one is to weave cloth. One is to sway back and forth. They are similar in all their forms, except wove is for cloth, weaved is for swaying back and forth.
Craig: Now, which one would you use for in my little example was a tale, a story, I weaved a tale/I wove a tale? I would say wove.
John: Wove. Because you’re making something out of it.
Craig: Got it. OK. That’s fine there. There you go.
John: Further/farther? What’s the distinction between further and farther?
Craig: Those are question of distance, like actual physical or measurable quantity versus quality. So–
John: The monster opened its jaw – which?
John: All right. But that’s a measurable distance.
Craig: Yeah, but the opening of the jaw feels unmeasurable to me. No, farther. Farther. You’re right. It’s farther. It’s farther.
John: I’m very much a farther is for distances on the ground. So, I’m going for farther–
Craig: Yeah, but I think if he opened his mouth I would say he opened it farther than the monster next to him. Further would be, yeah, more conceptual.
John: Weirdly, I would agree with you. If you’re comparing two things, one is farther. But the beast opened its mouth–
Craig: Further. Yeah.
John: The usage I was using or it, further seemed to make a lot more sense than farther in that case.
Our last one which came up is less and fewer. So, tell us the rule about less and fewer.
Craig: Stannis Baratheon’s favorite. That’s my favorite is when he corrects–
John: That’s right, it was in Game of Thrones. Circling back.
Craig: Fewer. Less and fewer. Fewer is used when you have a specific quantity. Less is, again, a case of quality. So you are less likely to do something. There are two fewer people in this line than that line. Three items or fewer, not three items or less.
John: Ah, but we’ll see. Which is the correct one for this sentence? It was one less drawer to open? It was one fewer drawer to open?
Craig: It was one fewer drawer to open. Well, it depends. Depends. If you’re talking about three drawers, and then someone says, “You only have to open two.” You would say it is one fewer drawer to open. Drawer to open. Drawer, by the way, is a New York thing.
If you were saying, “Ugh, I got to clean out my house and I have to go through all these drawers.” And someone said, “Well, we’ve gotten rid of a bunch of them,” then you could say, “OK, it was one less drawer to open,” because it’s more of a quality of drawer opening. So it’s ambiguous there.
John: It’s actually not as ambiguous, because less is for a single object. So, it’s only one. So it is a single object, if that makes sense. The best answer is that there’s no good answer and you will always be marked wrong, whichever choice you make. And so that was a case where I ultimately had to rewrite the sentence, because there was not going to be a way to write that sentence that a school librarian would not say that’s the wrong word.
Craig: The only way to win is not to play.
John: That is absolutely true. So, that was my adventure in copy editing. It was mostly fun. It was so much more exhausting than I imagined it would be. I thought like when I got the document back like, oh, this will take an hour or two. It was like six, seven hours of work going through it bit by bit.
Craig: I kind of think I would love to do that job.
Craig: What fun.
John: It would be fun to do on a book you like, but I can’t imagine having to do it on a book you hated. I was a script reader for TriStar for a year. And so my job would be I would be assigned two scripts, I would take them home. I would read the scripts. I would write up coverage. And then I’d bring them back and I’d just do that every day.
And every once and a while you’d read like a really good script and like, man, I really enjoyed this, I really got it, I was excited to do it. But then sometimes you’re reading a script and you’re like five pages in and like I have no idea what’s happening, I don’t want to do this. And there’s another 115 pages. And then I have to write up notes on this. And that’s when I can imagine being a copy editor on something you just despise is just like, ugh.
Craig: I get it completely. Although there is something at least, look, when you’re script reading you have to summarize it, so you’re regurgitating it, which hurts when it stinks. And then you have to make a recommendation about it, so you’re critiquing it, which never feels good when you don’t like things. At least if you’re copy editing books, it’s like, well, I can just focus in on grammar, sentence structure, verb complementing, repeated words, you know, the usual stuff.
John: Anyway, that was my venture in copy editing. A thing that most screenwriters will never encounter, but it was a good experience.
Craig: Sounds like fun.
John: So it has come time for our One Cool Things, Craig. Do you want to start off?
Craig: Sure. My One Cool Thing this week comes from Chris Sparling, guest of the show, friend of the show Chris Sparling, screenwriter, filmmaker. And he wrote and said, “I wanted to pass something along to you guys to consider for your next One Cool Thing.” Considered and approved. “As it is a powerful and timely initiative that would benefit from the added exposure.” And now, John, the added exposure.
Chris Sparling’s wife has Type 1 Diabetes. So, for those of you who don’t know the difference, Type 1 diabetes is essential congenital diabetes. You’re born with it. It appears usually when you’re a child. In this case, with Chris’s wife, she was diagnosed when she was seven. It’s unlike Type 2 diabetes which comes generally when you’re an adult and largely is connected to poor diet and being overweight, so it’s not a lifestyle thing, it’s a genetic condition.
She’s very active in terms of advocacy and several years ago helped launch the Spare-A-Rose Campaign in association with the International Diabetes Federation. So, the way this works is pretty simple. On Valentine’s Day, people go out, they buy roses. Buy one fewer rose. Not one less rose. I agree with him here. It should be one fewer rose, no matter what your copy editor says. Buy one fewer rose this Valentine’s Day and donate the value of that flower to a child living with diabetes in a less resourced country. And again, less, properly used there.
So, I mean, that’s a wonderful idea. Because diabetes is a terrible, terrible situation for anybody. It reeks all sorts of havoc on the body. It is difficult for people in power countries to manage it because, I mean, the best way to manage diabetes in a child often involves not just insulin but an insulin pump that is connected into the body. There’s maintenance and expense.
So, please would you consider this folks? You don’t have to actually buy one fewer rose. You can buy one extra rose, or take the money for one extra rose and donate it. And so go to sparearose.org and we will put a link in the show notes. It’s something I plan on doing. It seems like a terrific cause. And I don’t know what the price of one rose is. Six buck? Seven bucks? I don’t know. It can make a huge difference to a child. So, Chris Sparling, great idea. That is absolutely One Cool Thing. And we’re happy to support it.
John: Very nice. My One Cool Thing is Eurostar Snap. So, Eurostar is, of course, the train between Paris and London. The one that goes underneath the English Channel. It is great and I love it. And it takes you right from the center of Paris to the center of London. The challenge with Eurostar is it’s not often all that cheap. And sometimes you can buy cheaper tickets on the planes between the outskirts of Paris and the outskirts of London.
So, what Eurostar Snap is, it’s a way to buy cheaper tickets on Eurostar. So, down to like 25 pounds each, which is great. So, with Eurostar Snap, you get to pick your day and whether it’s morning or night, but you don’t get to pick exactly what train you’re going to be on. If you’re flexible, like if you’re coming to visit for a general sense, you’re not there for a specific business meeting, it can be a really great way to sort of get between Paris and London.
You have to book seven days in advance. They only tell you what your train is 48 hours in advance. But for a lot of people it makes sense. So, if you’re coming to one of the cities, I definitely recommend you try Eurostar Snap. If it sounds interesting, it is snap.eurostar.com.
Craig: There you go. See, it’s either you save a child’s life, or you get a slightly cheaper train ticket. This isn’t a competition. Both things are cool. [laughs]
John: You can do both things.
Craig: Both things. Oh, Jerk Craig. Actually Jerk Craig is just Craig, right?
John: Jerk Craig is the real Craig.
Craig: Yeah, just Craig, yeah.
John: And that’s our show for this week. As always, our show is produced by Godwin Jabangwe. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli. Our outro this week comes from Panic Episode. If you have an outro that you’d like for us to play on the show, you can send us a link at firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you send questions like the two we answered today. On Twitter, I’m @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. That’s the place for all the short questions that you have about little things. And we both answered quite a few little screenwriting questions this week. So, write to us on that.
Craig: It works.
John: We like to see that. We have a Facebook page that Godwin updates and I occasionally check out. So you can leave notes for us there if you’d like to. We are, of course, also on iTunes. That’s where you can download the most recent episodes. You can leave us a comment. We love those. It’s also where you can download the Scriptnotes app. There’s also one on the Google app store. For getting to all those back episodes – it’s the only way to get back to our first 287 episodes.
John: Woo. 287 episodes. You’ll find transcripts for this show and all shows at johnaugust.com. You’ll also find the full show notes for the things we talked about.
And that is our show for this week. Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: Thank you, John. See you next week.
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