Adventures in the Mailbag — Corey Mandell Answers Your Screenwriting Questions

Thank you to all me readers who have written to me with their questions. I will endeavor to answer as many of you as I can in this forum. Please feel free to keep the questions coming for future mailbag installments at corey@coreymandell.net

screenwriting questionsHow many specs actually sell?  — Jennifer K.

We’re seeing about two scripts sell per week.

Should I be concerned about what is currently hot in choosing a genre for my spec script?   — Amy R.

No!  What’s hot today won’t be hot when you’ve finished your script.  Write the screenplay that you most want to write because that’s how you create your best possible work. Diablo Cody didn’t write Juno because teen pregnancy movies were all the rage. David Seidler didn’t write The King’s Speech because he read an article in Variety saying that the studios were all looking for a good stuttering movie.

I’ve just been unforgivably lax with my writing. Call it procrastination or paralysis or laziness — I don’t know what it is. But I’ve really done nothing since I got repped last year. I’ve written about 45 pages of a new script and about 18 pages of a half-hour comedy, but don’t seem to sustain it, be serious about it, drive through. I am really frustrated.   Help!  — (name withheld)

Not writing isn’t your problem.  It’s the symptom of your problem.

Your problem is anxiety management.  When the pressure goes up (like when you first sign with an agent or land your first studio/network assignment), some writers thrive, others fold–which is why so many writers who break into the business can’t sustain a career.  There are two books you absolutely must read.  I won’t take no for answer.  Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success and Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.

Are the screenwriting contests a waste of time and money?  — Mack V.

Most of them are, as they are designed as profit-making ventures.  So if you’re going to enter contests, I’d stick to the ones that the industry actually pays some attention to. Here’s the three I’d target:

  • The Nicholl Screenwriting Contest
  • The Austin Screenplay and Teleplay Competition
  • Final Draft’s Big Break Screenwriting Contest

And if your writing has an indie bent, you may also want to submit to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab and Film Independent’s Screenwriting Lab.

(Full disclosure: I have ties to both Final Draft, which sponsor my Professional Screenwriting Workshops, and the Film Independent Screenwriting Lab, for which I serve as a mentor. Regardless, I would whole-heartedly recommend their excellent programs. Okay, enough with the disclosures)

Can I do voice-over in my script?  It’s a historical bio. My teacher says I can’t. I mean, I see a lot of movies with voice over.  — Anne F.

Here’s the reality, Anne. You can use voice-over if it enhances your story and helps engage the reader. You can’t use voice-over if it bores the reader. Simple as that.

How old is too old to break into the business?  –Lou W.

You won’t be submitting a photo or bio with your script so it’s doubtful anyone will know your age.  They’ll only know how good your script is or isn’t.  One of my script coaching clients, a 57-year-old South African woman, just sold her first two spec pilots.  David Seidler was in his late 60s when he wrote The Kings Speech.  Alvin Sargent was in his 70s when he wrote Spiderman. Being too old is never the reason someone doesn’t have a career, it is only the excuse.

The screenwriting books do not work!  I’ve read all of  them.  They made me a better critic not a better writer.  –- Richard S.

This obviously isn’t a question.  But I had to include it because it is so true.

If you need such a great script to launch a career as you say in your blogs, why do so many of the movies out there suck so much?  — Jon W.

The short answer is that most really bad movies started out as really good scripts.  The longer answer can be found on my blog.

I’ve been told all professional writers break their story before they start writing.  What does that mean? –- Joanne S.

It means you’re listening to the wrong person.  Anyone who says all professional writers do something, no matter what it is, doesn’t know what they are talking about.

I know a myriad of professional writers, and they all have their own unique writing process.  There is no one-size-fits-all way to do this.  Your job is to find the process that allows you to consistently create your best possible material. That said, breaking your story means figuring out all the specific beats before you write. It’s a hyper-conceptual way to start, and some writers absolutely do this before diving in, others do not.

Is it better to be a TV writer or a feature film writer?  — Marc P.

I don’t know.  But I do know that it’s better to be an employed writer then an unemployed one.  Which is why many writers train themselves to be able to work in both forms.

What’s the biggest mistake you see new writers making? –- Laura F.

Following the “rules.” There’s a growing chorus of experts telling writers what they need to do to break into the business,  what kinds of scripts you need to write, how you should write them, and what has to happen on what page.  So what is the one thing almost all these experts all have in common?

They have never actually had a writing career.  In fact, many of them tried to break into the business and failed.  Now they make their living telling everyone else how to break into the business.

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