Notes for Newbies

If you’re taking up screenwriting for the first time, I’ll share two truisms about screenwriting you might as well know up-front as you read up and write down.

  • 1) Sales of speculatively written screenplays (“specs”) are far less common than options (an arrangement wherein a producer buys exclusive marketing rights to your screenplay for a limited period of time); and
  • 2) Sales OR options of specs are less likely to occur than that a script can sell YOU, as a writer, to script out a producer’s own idea. This is why your script is often referred to as your “calling card.” The words on the page have to convince “them” (starting with a paid-by-the-script reader for an agent or producer) that you have the potential to do the writing. If you’re fortunate enough to get a meeting with producers based on your script read, that’s where you have the chance to sell yourself as being someone they will want to work with while they have you do it.

If you want to take the plunge into screenwriting, I’m going to lay out some of the best resources now available to help anyone in the general population become the best screenwriter they can be. Bookmark the websites. There’s going to be enough here to keep you busy for months, or years, as you grapple with the mission you are assigning yourself.

First, here’s a power-packed informational site about screenwriting, containing articles from someone who should have, by all indications, have “made it,” but who, somehow, didn’t. Read all of these great, first-hand accounts from Lorilei Armstrong, technical advice, and a cautionary tale or three. They say, “Hollywood’s the only place where you can die from encouragement.” I haven’t been to all the places Lorilei has, but I’ve been to a lot of them, so far, and I can tell you, she’s laying out the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on this site.

Second, read the Wordplay columns by Über successful screenwriter, Terry Rossio, perhaps best known currently for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise of hits, but he and his partner, Ted Elliott, had written a string of smash hits before that series. Here’s the URL to his incredible columns, the greatest treasure trove of free advice on the craft out there.

Third, another great source of free advice on the web comes from the articles by screenwriter and columnist, William Martell. I bought his original version of his book, now an out-of-print collectible, called “The Secrets of Action Screenwriting,” in the 1990s. He’s got an expanded version now published for the Kindle, and four other Kindle e-books you can find on Amazon. Bill’s insights are second to none, in my book, and he has shared in his columns some incredible adventures. How would you like to have finished writing a terrorist thriller about a hotel being taken hostage, only to have the producer buttonhole you and take you to a set where there’s a cutaway submarine which he can only have for two weeks, so you’ve got to rewrite the script immediately so that it all takes place on the submarine? That’s what Bill managed to do. He’s had, I think by now, 19 films produced from his scripts. Bill also has a blog called Sex on a Submarine and has an Indy Pro page of his own at Wordplayer.com with “25 Ways to Kick Start Your Career.”

Fourth, for anyone thinking of purchasing screenwriting software for the first time, an opinion of mine; though Final Draft is constantly cited as “the industry standard,” and (even though it owns Script Magazine), I don’t use it. Call me a heretic.

I remember when v. 8 came out in ’99 or so, the newsgroup reader board I was on at that time, misc.writing.screenplays, was filled with complaints about it freezing up and having many other problems, including corrupting files so people lost their hard work. The support for it is not free, either. It may not have a problem in the world today, as far as I know. At the time, I was using Scriptware, which had been having issues since the advent of Windows 95, and required a rocky road of upgrades to get into good working order again. It never got updated after it was finally stabilized, on the third patch, if I remember correctly. After I got a notebook PC, I found it would not pull a script over the home network. I later bought a program which, initially, was called Script Thing. It was bought by Write Brothers and re-christened Movie Magic Screenwriter. It has been a rock-solid product through every incarnation it ever had; never freezes, never corrupts a file, works over the home network when I want to go sit outside with the notebook and call up a script stored on my desktop drives, and it’s the official screenwriting software of the Writers Guild of America, East.

If you’re not sure you want to plunk down the bucks, don’t. Get celtx for free and start writing! (Hit the “Desktop” link on the page.) Celtx is one of these “Three Apps For Collaborating on Scripts Online” outlined in this article.

A quick review of Movie Magic features, compared to Final Draft. This has been out for years, so, having not used Final Draft, I am not certain if Movie Magic still holds the advantage in so many areas, or not.

A writer’s in-depth, tabled feature comparison of the two is found on this web page.

And then, there’s this extremely in-depth, current-version review of MMS and Final Draft at The Huffington Post provides screen shots and, in the end, still gives the edge to Movie Magic Screenwriter as being a slightly better-designed program for ease of use and intuitive comfort.

Get Movie Outline here, if you want a strong alternative to either of the above programs. I alternate between Movie Magic for certain projects and Movie Outline for others. Either will export a script in perfectly-formatted .txt or .pdf format for sharing. I have to work at getting parentheticals to happen, not much else bothers me about it.  Movie Outline is a strong competitor and, in my opinion, the best one out there for helping you plan your screenplay in the same application you’re writing it. And never, ever underestimate the need to plan your screenplay before writing it.

Fifth, don’t rush it, but when your work’s been vetted and re-written until you’re doing well in contests, getting good feedback from knowledgable people in the industry, etc., and you’re ready to try to market your work, you can try buying a Writers Database membership at the Script Pipeline. There’s a lot of contact info there; but most especially, there’s a section of companies that have an agreement with Script Pipeline to accept queries from its members.

 Peace Out. 

– Ron

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