Author Q&A: Pilar Alessandra, “The Coffee Break Screenwriter”
Pilar Alessandra is director of the Los Angeles writing program “On the Page” and author of the newly released The Coffee Break Screenwriter, published by Michael Wiese Productions. She has worked as Senior Story Analyst for DreamWorks and Radar Pictures and has trained writers at ABC/Disney, MTV/Nickelodeon, the National Screen Institute, the Los Angeles Film School, The UCLA Writers Program, and more. Alessandra’s weekly podcast “On the Page” is regularly in the iTunes top 50 of film and tv podcasts. I was fortunate to guest on her Podcast at the beginning of the year – Episode #123.
Alessandra shares advice for screenwriters, podcasters, and those writing non-fiction books. Plus, talks about how she is a very “productive procrastinator!”
Why did you write The Coffee Break Screenwriter?
We’re all busy these days and I see more and more people writing in their “stolen” moments of time. So, the goal of this book is to make those short, focused writing bursts as creative and productive as possible. It helps you be true to the story you want to tell, but also pushes you forward in the process. I’m always blown away by the fantastic results I get with my students when I give them a writing tool in class, then give them ten minutes to get their work on the page. They always nail it.
What was your process for writing it?
I wrote half the book about four years ago, then–like so many writers– ignored the rewrite. Instead, I procrastinated by building more classes, creating an instructional DVD, starting a podcast, touring the country, etc. (I’m the world’s most productive procrastinator). All of that teaching and crafting turned out to be a good thing, though. It helped me develop more writing tools, become a better script analyst, and, finally, get the damned thing finished.
How did you go about getting it published?
Signe Olynk and Bob Schultz from the Great American Pitchfest told Ken Lee at Michael Wiese Productions that if he didn’t publish my book, they would. He listened. They rock.
What was your favorite part of writing The Coffee Break Screenwriter?
Pretending that I was teaching a class as I was writing it. Teaching is my very favorite thing to do, so as I “lectured” the words came.
The greatest challenge?
Fighting that voice that screamed, “Who the hell needs another screenwriting book?” (The answer: “The person who thinks she’s too busy to write. That’s who!”)
Can you give our readers a sneak peek into what you discuss in the book? What are three things writers can do now to get started in short bits of time?
1. Commit 10 minutes to telling a simple story with a great idea. Describe it in a paragraph or two as though telling a friend about a great movie. That’s your synopsis.
2. Commit 10 minutes to dividing that story into four sections. Give each section a title. Those are your acts.
3. Commit 10 minutes to brainstorming the major events that happen in each section. Those are your sequences or “beats.”
Congratulations! You’ve practically outlined your movie.
What can a writer do to stand out from the rest of the crowd of those wanting to get discovered?
Commit, commit, commit. Commit to an idea. Commit to a story approach. Commit to a tone. Stop chasing trends and writing to formula. All a reader wants is something that feels fresh.
What inspired you to start your On the Page podcast?
I knew my On the Page Writer’s Studio had great talent coming out of it, so I thought it would be cool to put some of my clients and students on mike and talk with them about screenwriting. I had no idea anyone would actually listen! When they did, I started including producers, casting people, new media experts, gamers, and more into the conversation. I’ve learned right along with my listeners. It’s been an adventure.
What are the differences between creating your podcast, teaching, and writing a book? Are there any similarities?
The podcast is a discussion. The classes are a workout. The book is a guide. What links them is a respect for the writer. I do believe there are more stories to tell and I’ve witnessed writers get better each year at telling them. They’ve grown up, living and breathing movies and tv, and they have great instincts. All of my workshops and materials acknowledge those natural skills. There’s no dumbing-down.
How do you decide what to cover in which format?
For the podcast, we try new things all the time. We’ve had logline contests, interviews with cops and forensic experts, discussions of movies and even had a contest to “script” the podcast. (That one was pretty terrible, actually). For my classes, I’m focused on what the writers need to accomplish that day. Nail concept? Outline story? Get a scene on the page? Rewrite? I have a responsibility to get them there.
Additional advice for screenwriters?
Stage or film a short piece of work. Showcase yourself!
Additional advice for would-be podcasters?
Don’t take yourself too seriously.
Additional advice for non-fiction book writers?
Enjoy discovering that you actually know something.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
That every script has a surprise in it. And that a short bob was actually not a good look for me.