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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Monday, May 30, 2005


I know this blog is still new, and many of you who are visiting it are just here to "check it out." But I'd love it if you would leave a brief comment or two as you do so. I know these things take time, but it's tough to write "in a vacuum," not knowing if you've got an audience or who they are! And I love getting feedback!

Thanks! :-)

Fun Joel

On the Cusp

So a few people have asked me why I've begun the blog now, and though I've addressed it a bit in my intro post, I figured I'd also expand on that a bit here.

As I said, I've been working in the film biz for a while now, and have been writing scripts for a number of years as well. But a few things conspired to push the writing aspect of my career forward and place me "on the cusp," as I see myself.

First of all, I moved to LA in October '03. That was a huge step forward for me, in terms of my career. I'm not even going to expound on the "do I have to live in LA to be a screenwriter" question. The answer is yes, you do, or at least you'd be stupid not to. Period. In addition to putting me in a position to meet with (I hate the term "take meetings") producers, and others, living in LA has also placed my mindset more firmly in business mode. When I was in NYC, if I didn't write as much as I should have, it was easy for me to just ignore it and bury myself in sundry other activities and interests. But in LA, where such a high percentage of people works "in the biz," my competition, on the one hand, and the parallel quests of others helps foster a positive tension and a sense of community. When I don't write here, I get angrier at myself for not acting responsibly towards my career.

This also helped lead me to join a writing group. While I was involved in one for a few months in NYC, again it is of a different caliber here. Everyone else seems more serious here as well, spurring me on. There are many kinds of writing groups, but I highly recommend that the developing writer finds a good one (or starts one), and makes use of the support system, constructive criticism, and network that such groups offer. There are many such groups, but it is important that you find one that is honest, yet supportive, and also one that isn't too big.

Lastly, I forced myself into a writing schedule. This may have been the most difficult part of my development. By nature, I love variety. I'm an Aries, an Enneagram Type 7. I've been freelancing for years, and largely because I love the lifestyle. If it's a nice day (when isn't it, in LA?), I can go outside and have a cigar, maybe read a script out there or take a walk. If I'm tired in the middle of the day, I can take a nap, and just work later on. I thrive on that variety. So adding structure into my life is not my favorite thing. But at the same time, not having a schedule allowed me to embrace my natural tendency to procrastinate. Thus, less than a year ago, I began waking up at 5 AM and writing from 5 or 5:30 to 7 or 7:30 every morning. I won't lie and say that I always succeed at this, but at least it is my goal, and there is no doubt that I got a lot more done than I would have without setting this schedule. I've found my mind is clearer in the morning, without the distractions of the day that has passed. It's quiet outside and in. And by getting up and writing early, I find I also get more writing done later in the day, because I'm in a groove already. So in the past year I've made more progress with my screenwriting than I had since I began even thinking about screenwriting at all, about 10 years earlier.

This is why I see myself as "on the cusp" now. I've got a number of pieces nearing completion. I'm almost ready to start trying to find an agent. I'm at the point of my career when I am almost ready to start trying to sell a spec. And I've got things to use as writing samples in the hopes of getting assignment work. That's why I've started this blog now. If I were a few years earlier in my career development, I don't know that my insights would be as useful as I hope they will now be. And by discussing the trials, and hopefully triumphs I experience as I progress, hopefully I can help others who will reach similar scenarios a few years down the road.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Not quite a cliché...

So I'm in the midst of working on my next article for scr(i)pt magazine. I am addressing clichés, or elements which approach the realm of cliché.

Since I've read so many hundreds of scripts over the years (and anyone who has done the same will probably tell you the same thing), I've seen my share of overly familiar or repetitive material. I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say they're clichés, per se. Though over at The Thinking Writer, there is this recent entry that does refer to them as such, and also offers some great techniques to help avoid writing such clichés. Let me explain a bit more what I mean.

Certainly, we're all familiar with clichés in language. In speech a cliché is an overused phrase that has lost its resonance through overuse. For example, the phrase "caught with his hand in the cookie jar." At first, this phrase evokes images of not merely being caught in the act of committing a crime, but extends the emotional depth by reminding us of a childhood act. We can almost imagine the red creeping into the cheeks of the child who is caught with his hand in that jar. But by now, that phrase has been used so many times that it no longer evokes that emotional message unless we really think about it. We hear the words "caught with his hand in the cookie jar" and our minds immediately translate that to "caught in the midst of committing a crime." It becomes mere shorthand (which, I suppose is what language really is in its essence anyway, right?).

I've found that there are also other elements beyond dialogue that also have lost some resonance through overuse. I hesitate to call them clichés specifically, since I feel that they (or at least some of them) may not yet have reached that point, but they remain too familiar to feel fresh. A couple of brief examples:

  • someone looking at a photograph as a means of us gaining insight into their past
  • newspaper headlines/clippings, used to similar effect
  • a kid whose parents died in a car crash (doesn't it seem like every orphan in movies lost their parents this way?)
  • a character who doesn't speak the entire film, until spouting something brilliant or important at the end (and no, I don't just refer to Silent Bob here, but also to kids who clearly are able to speak, biologically speaking, but for some inexplicable reason just won't)
  • a computer whiz who is able to hack into any computer system (often at a school) in just a few seconds or minutes (of course this also stretches the believability point as well as bordering on cliché)

I think you get the idea. Basically, even if these things aren't full-on clichés, we've definitely seen them before, often many times. And my belief is:
If you've seen it before, you can find a more original way to say or do it.
This doesn't mean that you can't find an original twist on an old cliché or familiar element. In fact, to do so can sometimes be even more invigorating, giving the audience something unexpected, by setting them up to believe they'll see a cliché, and then surprising them with a different twist on it. Perhaps something like, "You've really done your homework on this. Clearly you were a terrible student."

Still, even though a good director might be able to bring some special power to a moment such as "John looks at a wedding photo of himself and breaks down crying," there is likely a much stronger way to deliver the message that John's wife either died or left him. I bet the first time a jilted lover walked outside into a rainstorm it held a lot more emotional depth than it does now. So find another way to deliver the same point! Alternatively, use the guy looking at the picture and crying to deliver a completely unexpected point. Maybe he's crying because he had more hair then than he does now. I don't know, but you can come up with your own. This breathes new life into the overused storytelling device the way the "terrible student" line twisted the verbal cliché.

So, what are some of your favorite examples of overused elements -- plot twists, character types, storytelling devices? Post them in the comments! Thanks.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

What Makes You Fun, Joel?

By way of (verbose) introduction, I figured I'd give you a bit of my background, and perhaps suggest who I'm aiming this blog at and why.

First of all, about the name... If you were to ask me the above question, I'd have to say it isn't a matter of what makes me fun -- I just am. What you'd probably be asking, really, is how my fun-ness (yes I know it ain't a word, but neither is ain't) manifests itself. Well, I'm a friendly, nice guy, who loves to entertain, make sure everyone else is having a good time, and generally make people happy and comfortable. The nickname actually was given to me by my good friend Edina (Funky Edina to me), and the name kind of just stuck. Eventually, I adopted it as a working moniker. If you ever meet me, I hope you'll find it appropriate!

Still, this little diversionary discussion is more than just that. It also helps explain how and why I ended up in the screen trade. I write movies because it is a way that I can entertain people and make them happy. While I have nothing against artsy movies, or those that might even be depressing, those are not the types of films that I write. I have a mainstream sensibility, and particularly focus on comedy, though not exclusively.

Now, why have I started this blog? Well, everybody else was doing it so I figured I better hop on the bandwagon quickly! No, actually, I held off starting one for quite a while. While I enjoy reading personal blogs -- and many of them do not fall into this upcoming categorization -- I felt that if I were to write a general personal blog I would feel overly self-indulgent. And that's not really my style. However, it is my sincere hope that this blog might be enlightening to beginning or developing screenwriters. I am first now getting to the point in my career that I'm really trying to establish myself as a professional screenwriter, and I'm hoping that by blogging about the ups and downs that I experience along the way, this might serve as some kind of guide for those who follow.

Let me also toss out a bit of my background (sorry if it reads a bit like a resume), so you have an idea of where I'm coming from as I ramble through this blog. First off, as I write this, I've been working professionally in the film business for almost 11 years. I began working crew positions on various features and other productions, and simultaneously attended The New School in NYC where I received an MA in Media Studies and a Certificate in Film Production. Over five years ago, I began working as a freelance Script Reader. Companies I've read for include New Line Cinema, Walden Media, William Morris Agency, Tribeca Productions (DeNiro), The Shooting Gallery, Mandeville Films, Constantin Film, and the Nantucket Film Festival, among others. Since then, I've also begun consulting privately with developing screenwriter clients, and feel free to email me (funjoel [at] earthlink [dot] net) for a copy of my rates and services. Finally, I write regularly for scr(i)pt magazine, and will also be presenting a few seminars at Screenwriting Expo 4, this coming November. I hope to meet many of you there!

Still, while this is all related background, none of it speaks to my screenwriting in particular. Well, let me catch you up on that as well, as it is the area of my career that I'm most attempting to move along at this point, and which I hope may be enlightening as I progress. Though I've been writing feature screenplays for about 5 years now (and short films for a bit before that), it is only within the last year that I've truly gotten focused and serious about it. Before then, it was something I said I did, but more frequently was something that I didn't do at all. Which brings me to my first, most important maxim:

"There's no such thing as an aspiring writer. You either write or you don't."

It is for this reason that I do not use the phrase "aspiring writer." If you are a person working on your first or second, or even 10th screenplay, but have not yet landed your first paid job as a screenwriter, you are not an aspiring screenwriter. A screenwriter is someone who writes for the screen. You are doing that. When you sell a spec, or get hired for a rewrite or adaptation or something, then you become a professional screenwriter. Until then, perhaps, you are a beginning or developing screenwriter. But a so-called "aspiring" screenwriter is actually no writer at all. It's someone who sits around dreaming about doing something, but never even attempts it.

That being said, let me summarize my screenwriting experience and then wrap up this lengthy post. Prior to buckling down with my writing, I began one script, but never finished it, then moved on to researching a second. That second script is one that I hope to eventually write, but it is on the back burner, along with many other potential future projects. Since then, however, I wrote a comedy script, and completed two revisions on it. I need to do one more full revision before I move on it, but before I did that, I put it on hold to quickly knock out a straight-to-vid type horror script. I completed that one, and also feel it will benefit from a brief revision. While I am in the process of revising both of those scripts, I have also begun working on a third, a collaboration with a friend of mine, based on another of my ideas.

I do not yet have an agent, but I also have not even tried to find one yet. I also have not sold any screenplays yet, but again I am only now just approaching the point where I will try to sell these scripts. It is my plan that, as I complete these 3 projects, I will simultaneously get them to contacts I have from my years in "the biz," and also begin to use them to try to acquire representation for myself. And since I now find myself "on the cusp," so to speak, this seemed like the appropriate time to launch this blog. I look forward to hearing from you all, and learning from you as well, while I relate my own experiences and hear yours.

Thanks for reading, and keep writing!