Part 3: If you are a beginning screenwriter…

Recently I received an email from someone who wants to begin the process of learning the craft of screenwriting. I started my response with the advice to use this blog as a free resource. After all, there are over 13,000 posts in the archives…

Then it dawned on me: How would a new writer even know where to begin going through those archives?

So this week, I will run a daily series aimed at those of you who might consider yourself to be a beginning screenwriter. I will provide links to five sets of resources on the blog you can use to develop a solid foundation in your learning process.

All for free.

Part 3: Study the pros

When I was in graduate school studying theology, I learned about primary sources and secondary sources. The difference: A primary source is original material. A secondary source is content about the original material.

So for example, if you are a Shakespeare scholar, primary sources would be the Bard’s plays, secondary sources would be analysis by scholars about his plays.

If you are a beginning screenwriter and your fundamental goal is to learn the craft, you will want to be aware of primary sources and secondary sources. From my point of view, that means:

Primary Sources: Material created by professional screenwriters.

Secondary Sources: Material created by non-professional screenwriters about the craft.

It’s not quite an exact parallel, but the point it allows me to make is a critical one: First and foremost, you should study the pros. What they say and what they write should take precedence over people who are non-professional screenwriters.

Why? For a very simple reason: There are realities about the actual practice of the craft that can only be known by writers who have worked on the front lines of Hollywood.

Any person can say anything about screenwriting. Ultimately, however, none of it means squat unless it passes the sniff test of what it means to be a screenwriter working with Hollywood professionals — interacting with directors, actors, producers, studio executives, managers, agents; experiencing the pressure of pitching, development, pre-production, production, even post-production; communicating with other professional writers.

The only people who can know whether this or that theory, practice or approach passes that sniff test are those who have the actual experience of writing for income in Hollywood.

So how can one determine who is a professional screenwriter? Go to their IMDB page. Do they have produced credits? Do they have projects in development? Have they had a history of working in the business? It’s that type of boots on the ground experience that separates pros from non-pros.

How can you learn from the pros? A plethora of ways:

* Scripts: Read the screenplays they write.

* Movies: Watch the movies with which they are associated.

[Both of these can be a bit spotty because screenwriters are often rewritten, so sometimes it’s hard to know who wrote what, but if you dig deep enough, you can source many scripts representing a writer’s original vision for the stories they write.]

* Interviews: It’s my impression that screenwriters are getting more press than in year’s past, so here’s a good routine to develop: Make a list of the movies opening in theaters on the weekend, do a Google search with the key words “interview” and the writer’s name. I do this pretty much every week for the written interview I post on Saturdays. Then on Sundays when I post a video interview, I do the same thing, only on YouTube. Speaking of which, a good place to start is right here on my blog where I have hundreds of interviews: Audio, Video, Written. There are also a whole slew of books featuring interviews with screenwriters, some of which I feature here: How They Write A Script. Another great resource: “The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith” who has been interviewing screenwriters and filmmakers for years and whose audio sessions can be accessed here.

What can you learn from these type of interviews? A lot, but I’d recommend zeroing in on process, how each writer approaches the craft. You never know when you might hear a tip or technique that revolutionizes your own process.

* Social Media: Writing is a lonely profession which is one reason why I believe a number of professional screenwriters like to interface with the public through social media, just to connect with — at least — virtual human beings from time to time. Here are some highlights on that front: It’s fair to say that screenwriter John August (Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) is the dean of all social media relative to the craft. His website has been up and running since 2003, and its archives are chock full of advice about screenwriting.

ScriptNotes: Along with fellow screenwriter Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, Identity Thief), John also hosts a weekly podcast that has proved to be hugely popular.

The Nerdist Writers Panel: Hosted by writer Ben Blacker (Supah Ninjas, Supernatural), it offers a deep archive and ongoing informal audio chats with writers about TV, movies, comic books, novels, etc.

Wordplayer: Hosted by screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott (Aladdin, Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean), a site with a series of insightful essays about the craft and business of screenwriting.

Doug Richardson: Screenwriter (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys) and novelist with a weekly blog post using personal anecdotes from his professional career to provide insight into the business.

…by Ken Levine: Levine is a veteran TV writer (Cheers, Frazier, The Simpsons, Wings) and has uploaded daily posts about TV and writing since 2005.

Brian Koppelman: Koppelman (Rounders, Ocean’s Thirteen) uses Vine as his medium, providing daily 6 second bursts of screenwriting wisdom.

And then there is Twitter where literally hundreds of professional screenwriters poke their heads out of their offices each day to intersect with the world from time to time. One bonus: It’s entirely possible to get to know writers via Twitter if you’re not obnoxious and a stalker, and you show good humor, thoughtfulness and respect. You can go here for a list of a number of Hollywood pros, including writers, and their Twitter handles.

Speaking of Twitter, in what I think is a first, screenwriter-director Eric Heisserer (@HIGHzurrer), who ran a lengthy series of screenwriting challenges via Twitter a few years back, has aggregated the best of them into a book: “150 Screenwriting Challenges” which you can check here. In fact, I will be running a special series next week spotlighting some challenges from that book. Stay tuned!

The main thing is this: Between movies, scripts, interviews, podcasts, blogs, Vine, Twitter and all the rest of what’s out there for consumers, there is a boat load of primary source material available to you.

Like Go Into The Story with its 13,210 posts.

So perhaps you feel a compulsion to check out secondary sources about the craft of screenwriting. Totally your choice. But I would strongly encourage you to pay special attention to professional screenwriters because as I say, there are some things about the craft a person can only know by having worked as a writer in Hollywood.

[I only touched on a few online screenwriting resources hosted by professional writers, so if you know of other sites that offer ongoing, helpful advice about the craft, please post in Comments. Also check out the GITS Blogroll which features links to dozens of online resources, many hosted by pro screenwriters.]

Tomorrow: More GITS resources for beginning screenwriters.

If you have any thoughts or comments, please consider taking a few minutes to post them in comments. If you are a beginning writer, I’d love to hear from you and learn about your background, interests and aspirations.

The path to becoming a professional screenwriter is an arduous one and extremely competitive. To maximize your chances, a new writer needs solid information grounded in the realities of working in Hollywood’s front lines as well as a pragmatic form of inspiration.

You can find both here at Go Into The Story.

[Originally posted November 13, 2013]

UPDATE: There are actually over 18,000 posts on this site. Tons of information. All free! Use the Google search engine and archives to explore virtually any subject about the craft of writing.

Indeed, I’ve been doing what I can to provide access to professional screenwriters with my own interviews:

Go Into The Story Interviews

Go Into The Story — Black List Writer Interviews

Go Into The Story — Nicholl Fellowship Writer Interviews

I try to do something different than anyone else: Interviews delving into stories and writing craft at an in-depth level. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by writers that they’ve never been asked such penetrating, relevant, and interesting questions as when I have interviewed them. I will continue to seek out writers as time permits. I learn a ton from those sessions. You can, too!

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