Author Q&A: Tom Lazarus, “The Last Word”
Tom Lazarus, author of The Last Word: Definitive Answers to All Your Screenwriting Questions, has written more than 100 hours of television programming, has had nine feature films made from his screenplays, and directed five feature films. He has taught screenwriting at various universities, and is currently teaching at UCLA Extension, Writers Program.
Why did you write The Last Word?
I’ve been teaching Advanced Screenwriting Workshop and Advanced Rewriting Workshop at UCLA Extension, Writer’s Program, for many years and have found that the workshop process, based on the writing of the screenwriters in class, is invaluable in terms of teaching screenwriting.
These real world screenwriting problems and their solutions are wonderful teaching tools. So, I’ve gathered the best of my script notes to screenwriters and compiled them in The Last Word. With over 100 chapters, the book really delivers a ton of helpful information not found in other books.
What was your process for writing it?
I reviewed all my notes, identified the best of them, and wrote them up. And then, it was a matter of writing and rewriting to get the writing in the book in shape. I can’t tell you how many drafts it took, but it was a lot.
What was your favorite part of writing The Last Word?
The deal is: I love writing, so the whole process of coming up with the idea, gathering the material, then writing and rewriting the bejesus out of it was all fun. And of course, finishing a project and doing my best gives me a great sense of accomplishment. The fact that it was received so positively by Michael Wiese and Ken Lee of Michael Wiese Productions made the journey worth it.
The greatest challenge?
To make the teaching moments entertaining, to the point and insightful.
In what ways was writing a book different than writing a screenplay? Any similarities?
Writing instructional books and screenplays are very different, of course, but the main difference is The Last Word is written in my voice, versus screenplays where there are many characters’ voices. And, screenplays are not the venue for educating, as books are.
On the other hand, the similarities are many: each has a beginning, middle and end. Each has to hook the reader and keep them engaged. And each has to be perfect in their presentations.
What are the three biggest mistakes new screenwriters make and how can they fix them?
1. The biggest mistake I find is that screenwriters send out their scripts before they’re finished. Some writers get to THE END and think their finished. They’re not. Other writers write two drafts and think their finished. They’re not. The screenwriter’s job is to send out a perfect script, fully realized, every scene and every piece of dialogue maximized and perfected, written the best the screenwriter can write. Most screenwriters don’t do this. The thing is: their competition, writers like me, spend the time and effort to send out perfect scripts.
2. Another common mistake is trying to fit their writing into some preconceived formulaic approach to screenwriting. The three-act structure is antiquated. The standard 30-page first-act, comprised of set up and back story and exposition before the story starts, is in my opinion, old-fashioned. Today, movies start faster. Readers and audiences want to see the movie they came to see from the very beginning, rather than slogging though thirty minutes of unneeded set up.
If I were to cut the first 30 pages of the screenplays I read, I’d be more right than wrong. The lesson? Get to your ‘A’ story right away. Any exposition and back story and set up can be done after you’ve hooked your reader/viewer.
3. Sending out scripts that aren’t perfect. Typos, wrong format, misspellings are all disrespectful to the reader and the signs of an amateur. Make sure your script is perfect before sending it out.
Additional advice for non-fiction writers?
At some point, you’re going to have to shift your loyalty from the truth to what you’re writing. Sometimes the truth just doesn’t work well enough. Your loyalty has, ultimately, to be with your script … as the reader/viewer doesn’t compare your script to the truth. They read the script and it either works or doesn’t.
Additional advice for screenwriters?
Writing is mathematical – the more you write on a script the better it gets. After years of writing, I’ve gotten pretty good at it, yet it still takes me ten drafts to get to a rough draft, then I get notes, then it takes another ten drafts for the script to be ready to be sent out. Stigmata, a big hit for me, took 40 drafts before it finally sold. It was optioned four times before selling, with drafts for each option holder.
What do you know now that you wish you knew at the beginning of your career?
I wish I knew that being a screenwriter was going to hurt … the rejection, the unemployment, the insecurity and the fact that when you get to be around 40 it becomes increasingly difficult to get employed. Don’t get me wrong, I love being a screenwriter. To be able to spend my time spinning yarns is a fabulous gift and it thrills me to be a screenwriter. That I’ve had success is a real bonus.