William M. Akers is the author of Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make it Great. An autographed copy of Akers’ book is 2nd prize in the 2nd Annual Write On! Query Contest, Part 2: Screenplays & Teleplays. Contest deadline is tomorrow, June 30.
A Lifetime Member of the WGA, Akers has had three feature films produced from his screenplays. He has written scripts, series television, and documentaries for the MGM, Disney, and Universal Studios, as well as Fox, NBC, ABC, TNN television networks. He teaches screenwriting and filmmaking at Vanderbilt University.
In this Write On! Q&A Akers talks about his experience writing a non-fiction book, and offers advice on how to make your screenplay … ahem … not suck!
Why did you write Your Screenplay Sucks!?
A fit of insanity. Well, not really. I wrote it out of self defense. For years I’ve critiqued screenplays. People send me money and I give them notes. I realized most writers were making the same mistakes, and I was giving the same advice to nearly everybody. “Don’t have people on the phone.” “Don’t have character names that rhyme.” “Don’t have your main character die on page nine.” Helpful stuff like that. So I thought, “Hey, I’ll give them a checklist … they can do all these things, THEN give me the script and we can talk about higher end concerns, like story and character and structure. That checklist became the book.
How and why did you decide on that title?
The title of anything is crucial. A book, on a bookstore shelf, people only see the spine. What have you got to attract their attention? The title, that’s it. I emailed friends asking for suggestions, and it was a combination of two people’s ideas that became the title. It makes people laugh. It’s easy to remember. Yeah, it’s negative, but people respond to the honesty and pull the book off the shelf. They think, “If this guy shoots straight with the title, the rest of the book may actually help me.”
What was your process for writing Your Screenplay Sucks!? Getting it published?
Francisco Menendez, who runs the Film Department at UNLV, invited me out to speak. I felt I needed a handout, so I cobbled together a pile of notes from my eons of screenplay classes, lectures, and script crits … it ended up a hundred pages long, and I thought, “Whoa, this could be a book!” I met Blake Snyder at a teaching conference, told him my checklist book idea, and he raved. He told his publisher, they gave me a deal, and I wrote the book. I wish the movie business were that easy.
How was your experience writing this book similar to/different than writing screenplays?
I dictated the book in the car. Never done that with a screenplay. I would have a 3×5 card with some rough notes to “talk” about, and I’d yak into the tape recorder and my assistant transcribed them. Then I’d fix the mess I’d made. In that respect, it was a lot like a screenplay. If I’d spent more time on the outline, the book’s first draft would have been more coherent. I took way more time than I should have, restructuring the book until it worked. Should have followed my own advice, and not started the actual writing until the spine was all neat and tidy. Silly me.
What are the top 3 mistakes writers make in their screenplays? How do you recommend they fix them?
Bad idea. It’s impossible to fix a bad idea. Once you’re preggers, you’re committed. So, my advice is to take an inordinately long time to lock onto an idea. You’re about to spend six months or a year of your life on this idea, so you better be damn sure it’s the one you want to take that much time on. Will it be an idea a director will want to give up a year or two of his life for? Will it be something that will be EASY to sell? Will it perhaps be something you can produce yourself? Will it be something actors are cutting each others’ throats to get a chance to audition for? Will it be something that, if you never sell it, you will have enjoyed writing?
Sloppy writing. People who read scripts for a living absolutely loathe bad writing. It reeks on the page like vomit. They want to read someone with a voice, a clear bell ringing off the page like a newly discovered singer. Remember Simon Cowell’s face when he first heard Susan Boyle? That’s how they want to feel. Reading page 1, they can’t tell if you can handle a character arc, or if you know how to structure a script, or if you can tell a story … but they sure can tell if you don’t care about good writing. If it’s poorly written, they’ll know in the first paragraph and you’re doomed.
Arrogance. Not knowing how the business works, that’s arrogance. Thinking your script is somehow different or better than everyone else’s, so you don’t have to play by the rules, that’s arrogance. Not taking an eon of time to get your script PERFECT, thinking, “Hey, they’ll see the gem in there and they’ll pay me to fix it …” That’s arrogant stupidity. A writer is asking a producer to spend money on their screenplay that could be used to build an office building … and not having the blueprint in PERFECT shape is begging for a punt to the round file. The business is so crushingly brutal, that no one wants to work with arrogant people. And don’t say, “But So And So, he’s a completely arrogant jerkface …” I counter with, “Not before he had his big hit, he wasn’t.”
How can a new screenwriter make his or her screenplay stand out?
1. Killer idea, and I mean an idea so compelling it sucks the air out of the room when you tell it.
2. Characters that are FANTASTIC, so actors will want to cut their rate down to nothing to play them.
3. Fresh, inventive writing.
Simple. It’s a piece of cake! Anybody can do it!
Advice for non-fiction writers?
You’re still telling a story. Don’t ever forget that.
Additional advice for screenwriters?
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
How difficult it would be to make a living.
How little time I actually have.
The difference between a good idea and a stellar one.
How the business works.
How to produce.
How good I am at helping other writers.
What I’m best at writing.
Which advice would turn out to be bad advice.
Tags: Query Contest Screenwriting Vanderbilt University William Akers Your Screenplay Sucks