Do you do any kind of research into the occupations, lifestyles and skills (biography) of your characters before writing up the script? Ame E
Yes. For 25th Hour, I had worked as a high school teacher and those experiences helped me create the character of Jakob. (I'd also worked as a nightclub bouncer, which helped me write the club scenes.) Frank Slattery is a bond trader, so before I wrote his chapters for the novel I spent a day with a friend on a trading floor down in the World Financial Center (one of the smaller buildings formerly adjacent to the World Trade Center). As for Monty, I've known drug dealers since I was 14. Not the gun-toting gangbangers hanging on street corners, but the dealers who sell to white boys like me. Other scripts I'm writing, which deal with environments and characters I've never encountered, require far more research.
Which comes first - characters or story? Tony Bufton
I don't agree with the bifurcation. A story is defined by its characters and characters are defined by their story. Most Hollywood movies start with a simple logline ("OK, terrorists have seized this skyscraper in Los Angeles...") and then generic characters are inserted into the action ("We've got a hothead New York City cop; we've got a nefarious villain with a snooty English accent..."). That's probably why I can't remember most Hollywood movies a week after seeing them.
What do you do to combat the sense of panic that comes with writer's block - or is this something you do not suffer from? Ben Hawtree
Panic doesn't last very long. Given enough time, it morphs into simple fear - and fear is a useful motivator. Writing is my job. Every day I go to the office, sit in front of the computer, and write. Some days are better than others, but every day I get something done. Writer's block, I think, is often the result of a frustrated anticipation for inspiration. But if you're writing for a living, you can't sit around waiting for the goddamn muses. You get your ass in the chair, you turn on the computer, and you write, and if the writing's no good you keep doing it anyway, because that's all you're good for.
I think Shakespeare said that.
I would like to get into scriptwriting and have done a lot of work experience with advertising and TV, but very little with movies. I was wondering how you first got into screenwriting and got yourself known to producers? Robyn Jankel
My path was circuitous and probably not advisable. Over the course of eight years I wrote three novels. The first I never bothered sending to anyone because it reeked. The second I liked, but publishers did not. Thirty-four of them rejected it. I didn't even know there were 34 publishers in America. But one good thing did result from this disaster - I got an agent. The third novel finally sold and became The 25th Hour. Before the book was published, my agent sent the galleys around Hollywood. Somehow Tobey Maguire got his hands on it. He read it, he liked it, he called me in for a meeting. I'd never met a movie star before Maguire. I was nervous. But we had a good conversation, and following that talk, he and his producers hired me to write the adaptation. That job allowed me to quit teaching freshman composition. In other words, I owe my career to Spider-Man.
Writers are often told the best way to write is to write from your own experience. Do you agree? Philip Meikle
Well, I haven't strapped on a bronze shield in recent memory. I think the old truism, "Write what you know," is too often misinterpreted as "Write your life story". For me, the fascination of fiction lies in the imagination. Stories allow us to experience other lives from other points of view. Still, everything I write is informed by personal experience. So while I've never lifted a sword in anger, I did have knives pulled on me three times growing up in Manhattan. I remember my thoughts when I saw the points of those knives and I'm able to draw on those memories when describing a character walking towards an angry man with a sword. Which isn't to say that anything in my life would prepare me to battle Menelaus on the fields of Troy, but is to suggest that we've all experienced fear, love, hatred, and desire. The circumstances may be radically different, but the basic human emotions run true through history and geography. I think the best short story I've written is about Russian soldiers in Chechnya. I'm not Russian, I'm not a soldier, and I've never been to Chechnya.
How do you structure your writing day? I am a struggling scriptwriter who just wondered if you had any advice. Liz Hill
My writing habits are deplorable and I wouldn't advise imitating them. I generally begin typing shortly before midnight and continue until the words on the monitor begin to blur - around 0430, most nights. Occasionally I can write for longer bursts and sometimes I even get work done in the afternoons, but for whatever reason I tend to get sharper as the day progresses. Silence helps. Late at night the phone stops ringing, cars stop honking - all I hear is the whir of the fan and the snores of my dog.
More important than schedule is the importance of writing every day (well, five days a week - writers need weekends, too). Generally I set internal deadlines for myself - I must get to page 100 by Friday, or I must finish that scene in the barroom before I go to bed.
Which is preferable to you - writing novels or writing for the screen? Stephen Walker
I know I'm supposed to answer novels. The culture I grew up in praised novelists as the true littérateurs and condemned screenwriters as the retarded mercenaries of the writing world.
Personally, I don't think there's anything intrinsically sacred about a novel or intrinsically tawdry about a script. Plenty of awful novels jam the shelves of your local bookseller. And a great script - I'm thinking of Jules Pfeiffer's Carnal Knowledge or Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. - is just as worthy a literary artifact as a play or a novel.
I know, I know - I'm avoiding the question. If it seems that I'm protesting too much, it's because I am, because there is one part of me that feels I shouldn't be devoting so much time to a medium wherein the writer possesses so few powers to protect his writing. But the thing is, I love movies. And more than that, I love the potential of movies. Every time the lights dim at the theater and the projector illuminates the screen, I get excited. Ninety-five times out of a hundred I'm disappointed by the results, but that doesn't stop me from going back for more. Our ability to tell a story with moving pictures grows more powerful with every year, but the vast majority of movie writing is still horrendous. Why? Why do studios pay $200 million for special effects bonanzas featuring moronic dialogue?
OK, I'm cutting the ramble short. I'm sorry, Stephen. The answer to your question is that I enjoy writing both, though I love the authority that a novelist wields over the finished work, and I love the house I live in thanks to the scripts I've sold.
I really enjoyed 25th Hour for the casual narrative voice employed and it was nice to see a teacher who's not mono-dimensional! Besides being determined, what is the best advice you'd give an aspiring writer? Christina Cedillo
Thank you, Christina. My advice is find yourself a good first reader, someone willing to wade through your various drafts, give you the bad news when necessary, and duck when you throw bricks at their head. Also, instead of reading the various books on writing, read real books. I don't know if you're a screenwriter or a novelist or what, but it's far more helpful (and entertaining) to read six good scripts than one lame and dogmatic how-to manual on screenwriting.
When adapting a book, what is the first step after reading the material - especially when the material is so long and has so much depth. How do you decide what to leave out? Lucilla
I think the adapter's job is to find a narrative throughline and excise any material not critical for that narrative's success. That sounds a little surgical, and I suppose it is, but - as your question suggests - the most difficult task is deciding what to cut. In adapting my own novel, I cut a character (LoBianco) because he wasn't essential for the principal journey of the movie. Again, there is very little time in a script.
I sold Troy as a pitch, and the first thing I said in that pitch was, "I am proposing a ruthlessly stripped-down version of the Trojan War, concentrating on the two dominant heroes of either side - Hector and Achilles."
I don't remember the second thing I said in the pitch, because it was my first pitch and I was so nervous I sweated through my jacket.
Having adapted what was originally your debut novel for the screen (25th Hour), how hard did you find the transition from narrative freedom to a more constricting visual form of writing? Or were you always a screenwriter first? James Galvin
I was a fiction writer first (short stories and then novels). Anyway, it's a good question. The constrictions of screenwriting can be frustrating, but once you get the feel for it there's a pleasure to constriction. I've always loved writing dialogue, and a screenplay, obviously, is heavy on dialogue.
What is Stay (your original script) about and were you very surprised that it sold for so much money? Carla Miller
Stay is about a university student who, on a Wednesday, informs his psychiatrist that he plans to kill himself on Saturday. Well, it's about more than that, but I'm not supposed to give anything else away. Regarding the money, God yes. Not surprised - paralyzed with shock. When I got that phone call I lay down on the floor of my apartment. Standing had suddenly become too difficult.
What advice would you give to an aspiring screenwriter in terms of getting the completed script sold? Elena Duff
Selling a script without an agent is next to impossible. So get an agent. How? I wouldn't bother sending a script to an agency in the hopes someone will read it - that's a miracle on par with an actress getting discovered in a drugstore. First of all, exploit any contacts you have. Your sister's boyfriend's uncle is a hotshot at William Morris? Great - send him a script. Your old screenwriting teacher still has some connections in the business? Hassle your ex-teacher into reading your script. If that sounds obnoxious and pushy, well, it is.
In the absence of any plausible connections, condense your script into a brief (that means less than a page!) synopsis, copyright the synopsis (and/or register it at the Writers Guild) and send it off, with a cover letter, to various agents. If they're intrigued by your story, they'll want to read the script. If not, screw 'em. Move on. I could paper the walls of my house with the rejection letters I got for my first two novels and my first 50 short stories. There are a thousand No's for every Yes, but all you need is one Yes to begin a career.
Thank you for your questions and thank you for reading my answers.