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Screenwriting Professional Standards and Work Environment

Screenwriting Professional Standards and Work Environment

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Writing stories or screenplays is a passion and a dream. However, it is also a business, and you'll have greater success by being professional. Often for a working writer, the difference between getting a freelance job (such as paid 'script for hire' work) or not lies in your presentation. A sloppy amateur who may feel he is brilliant but puts out incomplete queries, writes manuscripts with bad grammar and spelling, misses deadlines, and can't speak well on the phone,will miss out on the gig. A diligent, persistent writer who might be less of a genius, but does the work the way it needs to be done, on-time, complete, and presentable---he'll get the work time and time again.

It's the same with any business. Handling your manuscripts, queries, and deadlines well makes the buyer feel good about his purchase and the time and effort he intends to spend on your creation. Never doubt that every word of your work should be valued along with the look of the manuscript, your manner, and submissions---in short, your whole act.

However, there's more to learn about working as a serious writer. For one thing, your work environment and work practices need your attention. A writer needs quiet, and he needs a comfortable place where he can spend many hours typing. You can start by creating a work space that will be efficient as well as serene. Working on a script on a laptop computer in your car won't cut it for long.

Here's some of what a modern writer will want for his workspace:

--A roof over your head, or a home, with most of your ordinary life sustaining needs met---food, water, electricity, phone, bed, and bath.

--A reasonable desk---large enough for a computer set up and for papers and manuscripts to be organized.

--A fairly modern computer and printer. It dooesn't have to be the best, but it needs to handle modern word processing programs like MSWord and other programs like Final Draft. It should be internet ready and be able to handle e-mail.

--Common office supplies like printer paper and ink, paper clips and staples, colored card stock paper, brass brads, a hole punch for binding scripts, envelopes, blank discs, etc.

--Decorations and comforts---plants, music, favorite photos or artwork, a coffee machine, snacks, back massager (vibrator), vitamins, a clock, etc.

You can also include file cabinets, a personal library of best loved books and reference material, an income ledger and accounting system, postal supplies like stamps and label makers, a voice recorder, a copier and fax machine, an address book, a calendar, phone cards, and lots and lots of time.

All this is hard to come by for some and easy for others, but it sure helps when you have what you need for the job at hand and you're comfortable doing your labor.

To continue, here are some 'do's and don'ts' for the working writer today:

DON'T use drugs or alcohol while writing, either for inspiration or to drown your sorrows. Believe it or not, only a very immature writer would doubt his natural talent so much as to believe that he does his best work high. Things like cigarettes and booze are an easy trap to fall into, but you'll pay in the long run.

DON'T procrastinate by messing around endlessly online, looking at porn, chatting with friends on the phone, or playing video games. If you want to write, it's hard work and you have to pay your dues with the hours needed, otherwise you're just fooling yourself.

DO pay attention to your health and get some exercise. If you're sitting at your desk for ten hours a day, it takes a toll. You can become obese; your back can hurt; your eye-sight may fail; you can even develop a kind of computer psychosis from staring at a pixilated screen for too long. Carpel tunnel syndrome is common for writers and very painful. Eat right, do at least some exercise daily, and watch for the warning signs that you have different kinds of problems.

DO maintain other interests. Go out with friends, have a barbecue, play tennis, work on a hobby like boat building or gardening. Get away from the keyboard and the world of words once in a while and you'll be glad you did.

DON'T let depression, bitterness,envy or anger overwhelm you. It's a long road, and those big paychecks and glamorous parties may or may not come. If you get feeling really down about it all, just let it go and do something else.

DON'T try to write at length outdoors, like at the beach, without recognizing how difficult it is to keep papers from blowing away, to overcome annoying insects, to avoid heat or cold (or rain), and stop interruptions. Unless you work this out in advance, it's a loser.

DO be familiar with, and enforce, your own ethical standards of the work you're willing to do and work you won't do. Some writers will work on bloody gore and sadistic horror, and some won't; some will work on erotica and some not; some writers will even take a paycheck for working on obvious propaganda or political ideas they don't agree with. Set your standards and stick with them for your own peace of mind.

DO deal with all business matters pertaining to your work including phone calls from other professionals, offers of employment, contracts, deals and commitments in an upfront, pleasant, and completely proper way. Screenwriting may have a reputation as the 'bad boy genre' of the writing world, but it's not all thug life stuff. You'll get more fish in your net by being a good citizen in the business world.

A lot of people start out to 'be a writer' not knowing what it's like or what's involved. The world of ideas can be thrilling and endlessly rewarding. However, there's always the real world of money, relationships, health, and practices. Don't neglect these areas, keep your standards as high as you're able, and your success will happen in a much more satisfying way overall.
Now that you know how to write 'The Greatest Screenplay Ever Sold,' the practical, business side of this work comes into play. You want to sell your script for the best price you can get, to the most professional producer or filmmaker who may want it. You also want to see the work produced and widely distributed. To accomplish this, it's wise to know something about the submission process and the common tools a writer uses to solicit interest in his script. Understand from the outset that your script, though brilliant, is but one of many. So now you put on a slightly different hat than the one worn by the pure artist and go into selling mode.
Here are some simple 'do's and don't's' for submitting your screenplays:

DO register your screenplay with the Writers Guild of America or the U.S. Library of Congress upon completion. It's simple, fast, and inexpensive protection and can solve a lot of problems.

DO put your script aside for a few days after completion and then read it over again for errors and changes. You can always improve it, and you don't want to send out poor quality work in terms of spelling and grammar.

DON'T send your script without a query or solicitation of some kind included.

DON'T send your script directly to big corporate studios.

DO prepare a short logline and a longer, two page treatment for your story.

DO network and schmooze with any industry professionals, actors, directors, etc., you may know or chance to meet.

DON'T be a pest or annoy producers with phone calls after you have submitted your script.

DON'T try to get attention for your script with stunts like hiring a bi-plane with a tow banner that says, 'Buy My Script, Mister Spielberg.'

DO enter your work in established contests, if possible.

DO try to find an agent, manager, or producer who will promote your project.

DON'T quit your day job.

DON'T be impatient.

There are a lot more rules to live by regarding the best approach to selling your script and endless theories about doing it right. But the reality is that although you need to always be professional and courteous when marketing your intellectual property, the sale will depend on more than nice stationary and finely tuned loglines.

For these, however, you want to understand that busy producers and development people are seeking a short, nutshell version of the main idea of your story, so that they can easily understand what you're offering without spending the hours needed to read the script itself. Here's a sample of a common logline:

'Quest'---The cast leader of a popular TV space epic, similar to 'Star Trek,' is approached by real alien beings who have mistaken him for an actual star ship pilot. The cast find themselves thrust into a genuine space battle, and their limited experience as fictional astronauts has hardly prepared them for the real thing.

You include the title of the script and one or two lines about the main concept of the story. 100 to 150 words is all you need. Fewer words are better. Don't use flattering adjectives that describe your script as the greatest thing since sliced bread---just capture the storyline with sharply defined words and phrases, so that anyone reading it will 'get the idea' and be able to discuss the work with other professionals.

The right approach for a treatment or synopsis depends on who you are talking to. In the old days, a treatment might have been 20 or 30 pages, with dialogue and scene-by-scene descriptions, very much like a short story. Sometimes they still are like this, especially for high-profile projects. But many writers will now provide a one or two page version of the major plot elements of the script and call this a 'treatment.' Using this model, a synopsis is perhaps half a page. For both of these, you are providing a tool for development people, filmmakers, agents, and producers, who want to get familiar with the script quickly. So, your writing here should summarize your 90 page masterwork with a quick idea of the whole thing---characters, plot, action, settings and locations. But remember, you're not going to use a lot of self promotional, sales oriented praise for your own work here---just the story for these.

About queries: first, you locate and identify the potential buyer. This search will be discussed later, but, in general, you want to make sure the buyer is actually buying scripts like yours at the time you send him a query. A 'query' is a letter or an e-mail asking if the potential buyer will receive the script submission. That's about it. Without the query, your work is called an 'unsolicited manuscript' and is usually discarded unread.

A query must include all of your own contact information, a description of the script (including the title and the logline), and some of your background as a writer (any credits, schooling, scripts completed, and so on). Here's where you can make a real sales pitch about how great you feel your work is and why it would sell theater tickets. However, you don't want to go over about a page or a page-and-a-half. Beyond this, your producer or buyer will quickly grow weary, because he sees hundreds of these.

The query is sent, and you wait for a reply. Some producers will require a release form before taking your submission to protect themselves----don't fear these or balk at signing one. The standard release form simply indicates that you confirm that the script is your own work and that if the producer receives a similar story from another writer, you won't sue him. Given that there are so many stories that are very similar, this is only prudent.

If the producer or company writes you back and says that they would like to review your script, pat yourself on the back and send it. Some companies don't mind electronic submissions, such as a PDF file, and some require a hard copy (paper) by regular mail. Whatever the case, give the people involved at least three or four weeks before you inquire again as to their response. Some filmmakers will get back to you with a critique of your work, some will just politely decline, some you'll never hear from again---and once in a while, someone will love your script and offer an option or to buy it.

The other thing to remember is that to get the sale you want, you may have to literally send out hundreds or thousands of submissions. With computers and e-mail, you can be pretty methodical about it, but it's often a numbers game. You improve your chances with each submission by being professional and by having a great script. You don't usually need to worry that the same script has been sent to half-a-dozen companies at once, but it is nice to let those potential buyers know that your script is being 'shopped' if they ask.

Don't be troubled by the idea that some unscrupulous company or individual will 'steal your idea.' They know full well that they would be sued if they simply walk off with your work and roll cameras---who would want to spend all that money with a lawsuit hanging over their heads? As a writer, you have to take the risk, but it's really not much of a risk at all.

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