Each year the Cinequest Film Festival is held in San Jose, CA and four years ago I went to (and wrote about) the Cinequest Day of the Writer event and for this year's iteration, Writers Celebration, there was some tremendously interesting takeaways from the three different parts.
Part one - screenwriting wisdom
In the first session, talent manager Diane McGee and writer James Dalessandro spoke and answered audience questions about successful screenwriting. While both speakers excellent, Dalessandro probably spoke more and passed along a number of his thoughts and experiences as a successful writer and teacher of screenwriting. Some of his past work includes 1906: A Novel that he optioned for a large amount of money to be made into a film and the 2010 Playboy Magazine story "Petrosino v. The Black Hand", now slated to be a 10-hour TV mini-series about Joseph Petrosino, the turn of the 20th Century New York City Police Detective.
Some of the main takeaways from Dalessandro and McGee were as follows...
Structure in writing - Repeatedly spoken of was the importance of outlining a screenplay... with the idea that both plot and subplot should be done in the outline prior to actually writing the screenplay. Not in opposition, though, was also that someone should be willing to write out of sequence if stuck. Basically to write a section that is clear as a writer and then go back later, the phrase used for this was "letting the puddles run together."
Formula in writing - Formula as a concept was referring to as repeating dumb ideas, but it also noted that formula can be a jumping off point with taking what people have done and then putting a twist on it. It was said that there's little out there that's completely original, but can certainly be things presented in a new way that will get attention.
Writing for television - It was mentioned that if something can't get made as a movie, a TV show is a great alternative as film can be considered a directors medium and TV one for writers, and there's simply more opportunities in TV than film.
Writing detail - Dalessandro noted that a writer shouldn't write details if they don't know any of them to be correct and he does a lot of research as many of his ideas are based in reality. Included along with this was his quote that "a writer is a storehouse of useless information."
Importance of character in writing - It was said repeatedly that while a plot idea or concept may be the first thing a writer has, a story need to have an interesting main character... otherwise, who cares? Part of the concept was that a character has to have two problems, one internal and one external. On a progression, the steps for a writer could be viewed as (a) premise, (b) character, (c) rising conflict and (d) resolution.
Approach towards success at screenwriting - Dalessandro said both that first novel was rejected by seven agents and thirty-seven publishers and 1906 abandoned as a movie project by a prominent director and may not ever get made. Regardless, though, you just keep working at it. One point made was that screenplays a foreign language compared to books and articles so if someone wants to be a screenwriter, they should read a lot of scripts (with Fargo mentioned as a great one). It was also mentioned that scripts are now 95-100 pages only and screenwriting competitions a great place to take a first script. Additionally, two sites for aspiring screenwriters noted were The Black List and The Tracking Board.
Part two - selling a screenplay panel
The second session also featured Dalessandro, this time along with producer and management company owner Sean Davis and was moderated by San Jose State professor Barnaby Dallas. It featured 6-8 different early in the business people who pitched their screenplays (which had fared well in a competition) to Davis and Dalessandro as if they were studio executives.
It was said by Dalessandro and Davis that a pitch should give enough information to make someone understand the concept and want to know what happens next... as opposed to wanting explanation of what the concept actually is. Basically the intent would be to address the story questions of who, what, when, where, how does it affect the lives of the characters?
Additionally noted as being good to include in a pitch was brief personal information about the screenwriter. Along with that was mention that it's completely fine (probably a good idea, in fact) to be up front about someone's level of experience pitching if they're new it to and to have a backup in case the primary idea not of interest. Finally, it was said that query letters are tough route to try to get a script noticed because so many come, but competitions are a good route to go through... and two more sites to be aware of as an aspiring screenwriter are Without a Box about film festivals and competitions and the screenwriters resource site InkTip.
Part three - Maverick Spirit Award with Chuck Palahniuk
Palahniuk is a writer best-known for his novel (and basis for the classic film) Fight Club and this session first featured a viewing of the short film Romance based on story by Palahniuk and then there was a Q&A that began with him receiving the 2013 Cinequest Maverick Spirit Award.
Palahniuk noted that he's not really in the world of Hollywood as his model is more to write books or stories (with his most recent being Phoenix, a $.99 Byliner Kindle Single) which may get optioned and eventually developed for film or television. What stood out the most to me from him, though, was what he had to say about his work put in, both by himself and with other writers. Palahniuk said that Fight Club originally only sold a few thousand copies and prior to becoming a successful writer he worked at Freightliner for 13 years making trucks... and wrote while at work.
He then mentioned Joy Williams as one of his favorite writers and talked about the writing workshop group he's been in since 1990. There's nine people that meet weekly and Palahniuk noted the benefits of immediate feedback and accountability towards goals stated out loud. Also interesting (and related at least somewhat to the writing group mention) was his statement (which echoed one from Dalessandro) that creative work doesn't have to be all your own original ideas, it can come from other people and their ideas, just with your own take.
Between the three sessions there was a lot of great ideas put forth, with of course the most profound one being to put in the work and see where it takes you.