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Friday, May 2, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Absolutes (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill



I hate people who speak in absolutes. (Ironic, I know.)

When I was learning how to write, a lot of other writers would speak in absolutes when offering their critiques. “You absolutely can’t do this,” and “You absolutely can’t do that.” Some of these things included:

  • You MUST start with FADE IN:.
  • The inciting incident MUST happen by page 12. (or 10….or 15…or 8)
  • You CAN NOT have any orphans in your script. (single words on a line)
  • You CAN NOT have more than 3 lines in a paragraph.
  • You CAN NOT interject any witty asides for the reader.
  • You MUST always show, never tell.

The list goes on; trust me. And you know what I found when sending my script out? No. One. Cares. No one cares about most of these supposed rules. You know what the #1 rule really is? Be entertaining. If you’re boring them, then yes, they might start to care that you’re breaking a “rule” or two, but if you’ve grabbed them with your story they won’t have time to care.

Awhile back I started religiously reading professional screenplays and found that almost every single one broke a whole host of “rules”. “But P.J., those are established professionals. They are allowed to break the rules.” Ok, then crack open the Black List and start finding those scripts. You know what you’ll find when you read them? Rule breakers! All of them! And these are writers who, with the exception of a few, are NOT established, but are catching the eyes of a lot of heavy-hitters in Hollywood.

Side Note: Speaking of the Black List, a game screenwriters like to play is to take another writer’s sold/optioned screenplay and tell you all the stuff that’s wrong with it. (It’s half the reason Script Shadow exists – a website that traffics in absolutes) Whenever the Black List comes along, you’ll find numerous writers tearing apart the works contained within. It carries into other industries too. I used to work for a trailer house, and I would always be amazed at how much negativity was thrown at other companies’ finished trailers. And to me, with screenplays and trailers alike: why not look at what WORKED in the scripts/trailers and think about why that particular item sold? It’s way more productive than bitterly ripping it apart. It sold. Figure out why.

Back to absolutes: Blake Snyder (RIP) said in his book Save the Cat that something huge ALWAYS has to happen on page 25. Always. In fact, he even said he would flip scripts open to page 25 just to see if something big was happening, only to close them if there was nothing. What kind of wack-a-doo policy is that? I’m not going to be so bold as to say that Blake Snyder’s structure is garbage, because it’s not. His structure and beats are solid, I just don’t think they need to be as strict as he laid out. I think when you start arguing about specific page numbers, you’ve run out of useful things to say. (Unless your inciting incident is on page 50…then you should probably re-write it.)

When you speak in absolutes, it can have the tendency to stifle creativity. There are lots of DON’Ts, CAN’Ts and NEVERs thrown around. When I was in the re-drafting stage of my screenplay, I sat down with a professional, working writer and asked for his notes. He told me that my script was a “dark comedy farce”, and that you can’t do that. He said you can have a dark comedy, or a farce, but you can’t have them together. It won’t work in this market. I was devastated, because this was the story I wanted to tell. A month later I optioned the script.

I’m not naïve. I know you need some rules. And you could run into the same bitter script reader I talked about in the last entry who’s tossing out scripts that don’t have a catalyst on exactly page 12. So maybe it IS better to play it safe. But the next script reader could think it’s page 10, and then you’re really screwed. You just don’t know. And anyone who tells you that they DO know is trying to sell you something; be it a service or themselves. When we all start trying to uniform our scripts to the strictest degree, we run the risk of pulling our own voice out of them. They become stale, predictable, and most of all boring to read. But if we mix things up, we keep the field interesting and have the potential to be the next “little script that could”. Maybe the reason a dark comedic farce would work is because people aren’t expecting it. Or maybe I’ll fall flat on my face. But at least I’ll have my integrity. That’ll feed my family, right?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Pitfalls of Querying (PJ McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

The Pitfalls of Querying


Talent really will only get you so far. I’ve heard a lot of cocky people say “Well, if (insert person’s name here) were talented, they would have made it by now. Good material always rises to the top. No. No, it does not. Don’t get me wrong: you need talent. But you also need a healthy dose of luck. Luck that your screenplay will fall into the right hands. Normally you don’t know the sensibilities of the person reading your script. You could be sending your comedy to a reader who only likes horror films. Or your reader could just be having a bad day, and decide to hate every screenplay that starts with a noun. You just don’t know.

Let me tell you how my last script was optioned. I sent a query directly to the head of development and she requested a read. She then sent the script to her reader. The reader provided coverage on it that told her to pass, and about 4 months later, I received a rejection. (Yes, it can sometimes take THAT long – or even longer – to get a response). 2 months later the head of development reached back out to me and asked if they could option the script. Wait, what? It turns out that she couldn’t get the premise for my script out of her head and so she went back and read the script herself…2 months later. I was never told why the reader passed on my script, but the story could have easily ended there. And for most, it does. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a scenario like this. Normally, when something is rejected, they can’t move on fast enough. What happened was luck, plain and simple. You could say it was just because my premise was strong, but I don’t buy it. A lot of stuff had to fall in place for this to happen, and it could have just as easily gone the other way.

Real quick: notice in the last paragraph I said the head of development. I made sure, when I was sending out my query letter, to do the leg-work and find out who the head of development was (Thank you, once again, 2 week free trial at IMDB Pro) and send her an e-mail directly. DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT send to INFO e-mail addresses. It’s an absolute waste of time, and quite frankly, just a bit lazy. Anyone can guess an info e-mail address. Say the production company is Workshop Productions. Then my guess is their INFO e-mail is And do you know who that e-mail is going to? No one. There’s a reason all companies put this on their website in lieu of actual contact information. It’s to give you the illusion that you might be reaching someone. (Note: I am not interested in receiving a couple anecdotal stories about INFO e-mail addresses you might have gotten a response from. I will still 100% believe you should do the work and find direct e-mail addresses.)

So, back to the story: why did the script reader pass? Who knows. John August (writer of Go, Big Fish) used to be a script reader and once wrote about the time Quentin Tarantino’s original draft of Natural Born Killers landed on his desk. He thought it was so good, he finished it, flipped right back to the beginning, and read it again. But he passed on it. Why? Because he was too scared to pass it up to his boss. It was too different. Too unique. And even though he thought it was brilliant, he didn’t have the guts to pass it up the chain, for fear it didn’t fit the current Hollywood mold. And I don’t blame him, honestly. Every reader is putting his/her seal of approval on any script that they RECOMMEND. They’re saying, Hey, executive with a million other things to do: take an hour or so out of your day to read this script. I’m not telling this story because I think it was the case with my script, but instead to point out that the factors for WHY your script could be passed up are so varied, you could get a PASS even if they love it. How messed up is that? (My guess is that they passed on my script because the main character spent half the story unconscious; something the production company that optioned it would later change.)

Or the reader could have been a cynical writer, frustrated with his or her own failures. You know another twisted irony of this business? The same people we’re competing against hold the keys to our success. All the hungry, young writers who come out here get jobs as script readers as they try to peddle their own material. So naturally, they’re inclined to think that their stuff is better and everything they read is garbage. Try talking to a script reader at a party sometime, and listen to all that bitterness as they write off 99% of what they read as garbage, but then quickly begin to talk up their own work.

So it all comes back to luck, mixed with the talent to follow through. But don’t give up. The odds are stacked against you (as any screenwriting book’s introductory chapter will gladly tell you), but don’t give up. If you give up, then your high school English teacher was right all along. And you’ll lose out on the satisfaction of some day being able to send her a cake with the words “Eat it, Miss Mudie.” written across it in frosting. And she’ll be hurt, but think she at least has the consolation of a delicious cake to eat. But then she’ll cut into it and be met with immediate disappointment when she finds out it’s red velvet. Because honestly, who the hell likes red velvet?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Querying (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

As you may already know, we’re a varied bunch at STS.  Our main focus is – and will continue to be – showcasing scripts.  Short and Sweet.  Feature lengths, long and hard (um, okay… that came out WAY wrong.)

But in addition to the reviews, we’ll also be presenting interviews with directors and writers, book reviews, and various articles about the script writing industry.  Today, we’re honored to present to you our featured guest writer “P.J. McNeill” – a talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry.  This guy’s seen it all.  So sit back – enjoy the read. And learn a little something today.  (And for alot of foreseeable Fridays to come.)




I was once at a dinner party, talking with a writer who had just sold something to Sony. My interest, naturally, piqued upon hearing this. “How? Did you query a lot of producers?”, I asked. He arched an eyebrow. Clearly the term “query” was lost on him. “No, I just gave it to a friend…and they gave it to a friend…and THEY gave it to a friend, until it wound up in the hands of an agent.” I stared back at him in shock. Then he said “Honestly, I don’t even know who gave it to the agent.” His nonchalance made me want to ram my plate of hors d’oeuvres in his face.

Those of us not lucky enough to just release a script out into the ether and have it immediately sell are left with the dreaded query letter. Over the last 10 years, I must have sent out a couple thousand query letters. I do not have an agent or a manager (but believe me, I’ve tried), so I’m left with the task of pitching my material myself. (Side Note: A few months after my infant daughter was born, my wife and I were approached by a talent agent; looking to represent her. We declined, but as we were walking away, my wife said, “4 months old, and she would have had an agent before you.” Ha…ha.)

When I first started writing query letters, I would send these long, bulky letters that I’m almost 100% positive no one read. They were boring to write, so I’m sure they were boring to read. It was only several years later that I realized I needed to do something special. Something that stood out from the one-hundred-some e-mails producers must receive every-single-day. I won’t go into detail what I did, but suffice it to say, I received the most reads I had every gotten from a query blast, and optioned my script within a couple months. It’s important to stand out. It’s such an obvious piece of advice, but I ignored it for YEARS. I just thought “Hey, my work speaks for itself.” Well, no…no, it doesn’t.

It’s also worth mentioning that you need to strike a balance. Get a producer’s attention, but don’t go too far. There’s the obvious example of the guy who left his script in a briefcase at an agency in LA (that was subsequently blown up by the bomb squad – the script, not the agency). Run your idea by a few people before executing it. Ask them “Will this make me look like a nutjob?

Avoid query e-mail blast services. It’s all a crock; believe me, I’ve spent money on them (Future article title: Don’t Spend Money). Don’t get me wrong, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain: they’ll send your query letter to a BUNCH of people; I just wouldn’t expect them to be quality. The way these services get you is by showing you an incomprehensibly large list of producers/agents/companies and expecting you to just give them your money without looking into it; which I didn’t do…AT FIRST. After the service provided me NOTHING in return, I looked into the people on their list. Most of them either a.) hadn’t produced anything in YEARS, or b.) had no real connection to the film industry at all. You’re better off getting a subscription to IMDBPro (or if you’re cheap like me, the 2 week trial) and doing your own work yourself. That way YOU control who you’re e-mailing. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it.

So, to sum up: if you’re ever at a party and some writer is going on and on about his recent sell as if it’s no big thing, just take your plate of hors d’oeurves, get a good solid grip on the plate…and offer it to them.  Then give them whatever the hell they want.  Seriously, screw querying.  Just make a powerful friend.  It’s a lot easier.

Contact info: Got a question, a comment or just general bile (or overwhelming praise) you want to spew?  Email PJ at,  If you’re nice, you might just get an hors d’oeuvre! New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

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