Why 2017 Lacked Posts

We know there were no posts to the Tameri blog for 2017. We had a lot hap­pen­ing, not the least of which is the com­ple­tion of my (Scott) mas­ter of fine arts degree in film and dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy. We did main­tain post­ing to the Facebook page and to our Twitter account, but we didn’t blog. We know that it was a mis­take to let the blog go stale.

It’s nev­er good to neglect a blog for a year. Followers assume it has been aban­doned for­ev­er and some RSS appli­ca­tions mark the blog as dead. Subscribers leave, unless they hap­pen to fol­low you on Facebook and Twitter. Do fol­low the Tameri Guide social media feeds. We are active on Facebook dai­ly.

Now that the MFA is com­plete and some per­son­al mat­ters are set­tling down a bit (a lit­tle bit) we will revive this blog with posts about our favorite books and writ­ing.

Oh, and I co-edit­ed a book and wrote a chap­ter for anoth­er text.

Passive Voice is Okay (Sometimes)

We should stop telling stu­dents and emerg­ing writ­ers that the pas­sive voice is some sort of mor­tal sin in texts. It is not. Sometimes, the pas­sive voice offers the best way to con­trol what a read­er per­ceives as impor­tant.

Consider the fol­low­ing rea­sons to use pas­sive voice:
1. Technical man­u­als.
2. Aphorisms with no agent (actor) involved.
3. Unknown agent with the result more impor­tant than the action.
4. Action-focused sen­tences with­out a named agent.

Technical instruc­tions are pas­sive to focus on the object instead of the user of the object, often for legal com­pli­ance rea­sons.

Valve X is set to 150 degrees by the oper­a­tor after ten min­utes.
The soft­ware set­tings are found in the pref­er­ences menu.
The car should not be left in gear when parked.

The empha­sis in tech­ni­cal man­u­als remains on the object of doc­u­men­ta­tion: the valve, the appli­ca­tion, the car.

Universal Truth” or apho­rism are often pas­sive state­ments.

Rules are meant to be bro­ken.
The uni­verse is for explor­ing.

Any revi­sion of that “tru­ism” would be awk­ward, at best. “The peo­ple mak­ing rules mean for them to be bro­ken.”

Unknown agents result in pas­sive con­struc­tions. If you do not know who com­mit­ted an action, it is appro­pri­ate to use pas­sive voice.

My cam­era bag was stolen.
The bank was robbed.
The vic­tim was beat­en severe­ly.

The thief is unknown in these exam­ples, yet was the agent of action. Revising as “Someone stole my cam­era bag” shifts the focus to “some­one” instead of the more impor­tant cam­era gear now miss­ing.

Action-focused atten­tion, or sen­tences meant to stress the object of the action are pas­sive (and often the agent is omit­ted).

The fam­i­ly albums were burned in anger.

Revising this would be mat­ter of style: “The step­son burned the fam­i­ly albums” might or might not con­vey the desired impor­tance.

Stories that Sell

An email exchange brought some­thing into focus that I want to stress to all screen­writ­ers and nov­el­ists hop­ing to pitch a film, series, or nov­el. A sto­ry needs to be unusu­al, yet obvi­ous. The audi­ence should antic­i­pate some, but not all, of the con­flicts and the out­line of the sto­ry from the basic ele­ments you intend to bring togeth­er.

Here is one pos­si­ble equa­tion explain­ing my ide­al sto­ry:

  • nat­u­ral­ly “dif­fer­ent” char­ac­ters + unusu­al chal­lenge + good set­ting = a pitch that writes itself.

1) If you have char­ac­ters that are, by their natures, going to be in con­flict at times, that’s inter­est­ing to watch. Don’t think about “good v evil” or “pro/ant” yet. Ask your­self, if I put these peo­ple in a room, on an island, side-by-side at work, et cetera, would there be a nat­ur­al con­flict? Think The Odd Couple sure, but also think about it in more depth.

The new show Limitless is doing a good job with this “fish out of water” con­flict. Chuck was based on this, as are most sit­coms.

Consider the shows and films you enjoy. How far apart are some of the char­ac­ters? You should find some oppo­sites in good scripts. They don’t sound alike, act alike, or share the same val­ues.

I had a showrun­ner tell me that for every three char­ac­ters, at least one has to be the “fish out of water.” Two against one is appar­ent­ly inter­est­ing. Pairings can also work (think Will and Grace side­kicks or Cheers with Cliff and Norm play­ing off Sam… or Diane… or every­one else). In film, dif­fer­ences have to be obvi­ous from the char­ac­ter intro­duc­tions. You don’t have episodes to reveal how far apart peo­ple are.

2) Unusual chal­lenges are as unique and shock­ing as pos­si­ble. The chal­lenge has to be a sit­u­a­tion that increas­es the like­li­hood of con­flict. How does the chal­lenge bring out the dif­fer­ences among char­ac­ters even more? How does it place two char­ac­ters in oppo­si­tion? Again, avoid “good v. evil” because inter­est­ing “evil” is often sure it is “good” and mere­ly has anoth­er per­spec­tive of what is best. (Not that pure evil is bor­ing, either, but try to imag­ine the per­spec­tives involved.)

If your log­line is a basic chal­lenge, one we’ve all read and seen, it won’t rise above the sta­t­ic. Catch the real killer? Blah. Defeat the evil dic­ta­tor? Yawn. Expose the greedy, inhu­man cor­po­rate exec­u­tive? Double yawn.

Wait. Don’t those films and shows with pre­dictable chal­lenges get pro­duced? Sure, but by estab­lished writ­ers and direc­tors. To break into the mar­ket, you need to be sub­mit­ting some­thing that stands above the muck that’s being made.

3) Give us a set­ting that is inter­est­ing, in place and time. TV takes the lazy way out and imag­ines big cities are inher­ent­ly inter­est­ing to every­one. I love M*A*S*H for its use of set­ting on TV. Setting is prob­a­bly the tough­est of these to devel­op and make stand apart from what exists. (Bonus if you pull off the set­ting. Few do.)

Setting can dri­ve the action. If the set­ting is the Titanic, we know what some part of the sto­ry will be. Put peo­ple in a closed, con­fined space, and you have an obvi­ous con­flict. That’s why space sta­tions, under­sea labs, and oth­er iso­lat­ed set­tings work so well for sto­ries. Don’t select a “bor­ing” or famil­iar set­ting unless there’s no oth­er choice.

New York is not com­pelling by itself. Neither is a gener­ic small town. The set­ting becomes inter­est­ing when you place peo­ple and events in the set­ting that doesn’t suit them. Trap a spy in a small vil­lage, where she falls in love. Put the coun­try farmer in the big city, search­ing for some­thing that is lost.

Now put these togeth­er and test how com­pelling your con­cept is.

Writing Fiction about Writing: Please, Stop!

I’m mak­ing a movie about a young film­mak­er.”

My new play is about a strug­gling play­wright in New York City.”

I’ve writ­ten a great book about a romance writer.”

And then we have…

My new screen­play is about a play­wright….”

STOP IT. Please. Stop writ­ing about being a writer and assum­ing oth­er peo­ple care. Only oth­er writ­ers will tell you that a sto­ry about a writer is inter­est­ing. Generally speak­ing, writ­ers aren’t that inter­est­ing. They sit and write. They send out query let­ters. They beg friends and fam­i­ly for mon­ey to make their films, pro­duce their plays, and self-pub­lish their unsold man­u­scripts.

Write about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters. Not that some writ­ers aren’t char­ac­ters, but leave that for biog­ra­phers. Plenty of artists (includ­ing writ­ers) are fas­ci­nat­ing train wrecks. If you’re writ­ing about one of those famous drunks, addicts, or oth­er­wise inter­est­ing writ­ers with a great sto­ry, then ignore my pleas. Otherwise, get away from this self-explo­ration.

Write what you know? No. No. And again, no!

I don’t want actu­al psy­chopaths writ­ing mur­der mys­ter­ies. We don’t need police sto­ries writ­ten only by cops. It’s called research and cre­ativ­i­ty. Do fan­ta­sy writ­ers know real uni­corns and go shop­ping on the back of Pegasus? No. You write good sto­ries about inter­est­ing char­ac­ters fac­ing unusu­al chal­lenges.

Okay, I get that Murder She Wrote was about a writer, but it wasn’t the navel-gaz­ing non­sense of a play about plays or a movie about mak­ing movies. Please stop writ­ing about writ­ers. It just feels lazy to write about a writer. It feels like you’re trapped by being a writer, in a writer’s world. Escape.

Someone told me, “But I’m sup­posed to write what I’d want to read.”

When you were dis­cov­er­ing your pas­sion for read­ing, I doubt it was through sto­ries about oth­er writ­ers. Please, I hope not. I hope you were read­ing great works of fic­tion. I hope you were watch­ing epic films and beau­ti­ful come­dies. If those works you loved were about writ­ers, expand your hori­zons.

Avoid writ­ing films, plays, or books about writ­ers, unless you have some­thing beyond spec­tac­u­lar to share.

Writing Coaches are Mean People

Recently, I met with screen­writ­ing coach Jim Mercurio to dis­cuss some ideas and screen­plays I was try­ing to pitch.

Jim is a won­der­ful, high­ly ranked writ­ing coach and for­mer colum­nist for Creative Screenwriting. He knows writ­ing and he knows Hollywood. He told me right up front, this is going to be chal­leng­ing. It was weird because he said to me every warn­ing I offer my own clients.

Being a writ­ing coach means telling peo­ple what they need to fix. Most writ­ers don’t want to hear what isn’t work­ing in a man­u­script or screen­play. Having spent months or years on a work, the writer has invest­ed seri­ous emo­tion­al ener­gy in the work.

And this hor­ri­ble, mean coach, is about to tell the client that the work isn’t fin­ished. It isn’t as good as it must be. It’s just okay, if that, and needs to be refined. You hire a writ­ing coach like you hire a per­son­al train­er: expect­ing to be pushed hard­er and being told you can be a lot bet­ter than you are at this moment.

When a writ­ing coach push­es you, and cer­tain­ly Jim push­es his clients, it’s because you real­ly do have to be 10×, 100×, maybe 1000× bet­ter than what’s already in Hollywood. Your script has to be bet­ter, from for­mat­ting to the struc­ture. You don’t get to bend or break any rules. Your query let­ter, pitch, treat­ment, and logline(s) have to be bet­ter. Way bet­ter than what you might imag­ine.

During my last meet­ing with Jim, he destroyed every log­line, every con­cept, every treat­ment I offered, shoot­ing them down like he was play­ing the old Atari 2600 Shooting Gallery. And if I tried to defend my idea, the answer was quick: you aren’t big enough to rely on being okay or good or even slight­ly bet­ter than most.

There’s a rea­son I don’t charge (and sel­dom work with) new writ­ers. They aren’t used to how the sys­tem works and how much is expect­ed of a spec script. They don’t have a clue how hard the film, stage, and pub­lish­ing mar­kets are in this econ­o­my (media mar­kets have nev­er been easy to enter) and many writ­ers don’t want to hear any­thing but how great their ideas are or how easy it will be to tweak the ideas.

It’s not easy for a spec writer. Statistically, it’s near­ly impos­si­ble. You have to be writ­ing, and writ­ing, and writ­ing. You get reject­ed, you revise. You get reject­ed again, you revise.

If you pay for cov­er­age, some­times they’ll tell you how close you are, or even how great you are. That’s usu­al­ly not the truth. Sorry, but the truth is your work like­ly isn’t that close to per­fec­tion. These ana­lysts and con­tests want your mon­ey. Have you seen the lists of scripts mak­ing quar­ter­fi­nals or finals in these con­tests? Pages of scripts, 98 per­cent of which won’t be optioned, and 70 or more per­cent of those optioned will col­lect dust.

Pay some­one like Jim or David Trottier (“Dr. Format”) if you want unvar­nished, bru­tal truth. If you don’t want to pay, and are okay with strong opin­ions based on my expe­ri­ence, that’s fine — but lis­ten and take the advice seri­ous­ly. Jim, Dave, and even I WANT you to suc­ceed. We WANT you to sell a script or man­u­script. But we also know how awe­some the pack­age has to be. It’s not per­son­al when we point to weak­ness­es in a sto­ry or in some oth­er aspect of a client’s work. It’s not try­ing to show that we are mean or picky. It’s to help you sell the thing you’ve cre­at­ed to some­one, to some pub­lish­er or pro­duc­er.

I am not a famous script con­sul­tant. I’m not a major name. I have taught at uni­ver­si­ties and I’ve worked with a hand­ful of clients. So, if you don’t want to lis­ten to me, that’s under­stand­able. Yet, my stu­dents seem to have done okay and my clients have had some small suc­cess.

None of us, from the big name con­sul­tants to the (cur­rent­ly inac­tive) uni­ver­si­ty pro­fes­sors like myself, want you to fail. We want to help oth­er writ­ers be the best they can be. That’s why we point out for­mat­ting errors, gram­mar errors, and prob­lems with sto­ry struc­ture. We’re not being picky to demon­strate our exper­tise: we are teach­ing you what not to do, so your sto­ry will be read and treat­ed with respect by a stu­dio, pro­duc­er, pub­lish­er, or edi­tor.

And if you don’t believe that, fine. Whatever. But I want every stu­dent I’ve had, every client stu­dio, every friend I’ve tried to help to SELL some­thing each writer can feel was a great effort and rep­re­sent the best pos­si­ble prod­uct hand­ed off to a stu­dio, pub­lish­er, or media house.

Yes, I take this very, very per­son­al­ly. You want help, I’ll ask ques­tions and hope you lis­ten to what I’m ask­ing. If you want guid­ance, that’s what I can offer. It might not be per­fect and it might not be what you want to hear. If you don’t want my expe­ri­ence, research, or plain opin­ion, don’t ask for guid­ance or tips or ideas to help pol­ish and sell your writ­ing.

Look into a mir­ror, and tell your­self how mag­i­cal you are and how stu­pid Hollywood is. You’ll feel much bet­ter than I’ve ever made any­one feel about their works.

If you want to self-pro­duce, do it. That’s the best way to get movies made. It’s like the­ater today: self-pro­duce, and you’ll have a show. Self-pub­lish, you can sell a few copies of a book. If your work is so great, then you go make it hap­pen if nobody else wants it. It has worked for a few dozen film­mak­ers and play­wrights, and even a few authors have sold mil­lions of self-pub­lished books.

You want affir­ma­tion? Find anoth­er career, because screen­writ­ing is about get­ting fired and replaced by the sec­ond or third writ­ing team. You SELL the script, you let go, or you get hired to replace some­one you know and like. Writers end up replac­ing each oth­er, and try­ing to laugh it off over cof­fee or drinks.

Professionals all know that writ­ing is hard work, espe­cial­ly writ­ing for hire in the media. There are a lot of writ­ers, all try­ing for the few jobs and try­ing to sell one of the few works that a media com­pa­ny will buy and pro­duce or pub­lish. It’s not an easy career choice, and a good coach or teacher reminds you that it is dif­fi­cult.

Photo by jugarsan