March 29, 2009

Keepin' It Real with Screenwriter Cynthia Dagnal-Myron

The Writer

An optioned screenwriter, Cynthia Dagnal-Myron is an award-winning former entertainment reporter for both the Chicago Sun Times and Arizona Daily Star. She has also been a semi-finalist in the Chesterfield Writer's Film Project, Project Greenlight (twice), and the Bravo/NBC Situation: Comedy competition.

To learn more about Cynthia, you can check her out at MySpace, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

Writing for the Screen

For those of you who write for different arenas - big screen, boob tube, stage, page, web - what are elements that differ for you as the writer in regards to how you SEE the story unfolding in each arena?
I only write for the big screen and the "page," so I can only speak for those two. But the difference is that when writing a novel or an article, I can offer both action and the "motivation" for what the character is doing in words on that page. A script is all "action." You're showing, not telling. What a character does has to carry that story, and the power is in what the character does even more than what he says. In fact, if you write about what a character is thinking in a script it will receive a quick "pass." When writing a "story," you can have the character ruminate, think aloud, discuss.

You can also spend a whole page on description, to set a mood or make a point, when writing fiction. You create a whole world with words. Script writing has to be very economical, and exposition is to be avoided like the plague. In other fiction I can tell you what music is playing, what the character looks like, what perfume she wears. In a script, they frown upon this, because in the end, none of that will be decided by the screenwriter. So there are remarkable differences--glad you asked! I hadn't really thought about it this seriously before, though it's something I work with everyday.

What similarities, things no matter the medium, are important for a good story to be told?
There's a lot of info out there about how to write and what to write from A to Z. So I'm going to say something that may sound trite and isn't about "technique," but which is nevertheless extremely important. In the end, you must be passionate about the piece. As a reader for producers, I could always tell the pieces that were written just to be commercial from the ones written from the heart. I often gave "recommends" to pieces that were not as polished as they could be but had lots of "heart." The writer "took me there," even though there were little technical glitches that needed ironing out. If you know and love those characters deeply, it shows and will grab the reader, too. If you're not crying when you kill off that character, the reader won't be "feelin' you," either.

That may mean passing on a project or being backed into a few corners. It's true that it's easier to get that big break by writing a strong, "high concept" piece. I recently had to decide whether to turn a really personal piece a mentor loved into something more "commercial" to assure a read by a particular management company. I decided, after making a half-hearted try at the "commercial" version, to risk not getting that read. In the end, I think I'll still get that read and perhaps representation as well. The second try was good...but I didn't really "feel" it, and I thought it wrong to "pimp" characters I adored and had created for a certain important purpose in that way. It may take me longer to sell the less commercial version, but it was obvious from that second try that the first had the "fire."

Wish me luck!

How has the internet and the marketing/promotional opportunities that exist there helped to create a buzz with the projects you do?
I was just discussing this with my daughter the other day. She's a media arts student in the "producer" track, and she can go online and find everything from internships to producers looking for scripts. I never had that opportunity when I was her age! I've found my two amazing mentors and friends, Blake Snyder and Chris Soth, via the Net. And I've been able to get reads from William Morris and people like Steven Soderberg by just doing my homework online. That's not how I finally got my option, but it is how I was introduced to the mentor who knew the producer who finally gave me that option! So, my entire "career" thus far is Net-based. I can do deep homework for each project and get it to the producers who are most likely to enjoy them which is something I could never have done before and I can network like crazy that way.

I'm trying to use LinkedIn for that now, and it's only mildly successful as you can only contact people you already know or pray that the big name producer or agent you stumble upon is willing to add you without reporting you for contacting them "cold." But I think if you write really personable introductions to those big wigs, some may let you join their networks. If you haven't gone there, do! You will be amazed who's on there--everyone from Obama to Brad Pitt. But be careful who you reach out to. You can be "dinged" for trying to hook up with people who have no connection to you, even if those people are in some of the same groups you're in, so when you take that chance, it can backfire temporarily. It's easy to get back in the game, but until I found out that several of my friends had had the same experience, I was mortified when that little note popped up in my profile. I'm back gathering great connections with no problems! You just have to finesse your approach to the "inner circles."

What should writers/filmmakers have in their arsenal if they want to heighten their chances of success?
Screenwriters have to become more willing to do research about marketing than they sometimes are. Put as much time into that market research as you did writing the script. As I said in the previous question, you have to really seek out the right producers, managers and agents and to be tireless about getting that spec script out there. I've found some of my most valuable email addresses and lists and such by simply Googling someone's name and going through all those pages that pop up! After awhile, you'll find people who like your work and will help you get it into the right hands.

It's true that those who stick with it will at some point be successful--longevity and determination do matter. When I started out I was completely out of the loop. I live in Tucson, I knew no one in the movie biz, and I had no idea what I was doing. I stuck with it, I wrote to screenwriters I loved, I sent my work out as samples and never gave up even when I felt like a complete greenhorn. I now have two strong mentors and lots of contacts who can help me get my work where it needs to go far more effectively. It's having the moxie to make mistakes and learn from them! Al Pacino once said since we learn from our mistakes you should try everything. He's right!

What sites should writers/filmmakers of your field bookmark for great information?
Screenwriters should start with these. Two are my mentors' sites, and their workshops and courses are worth the time and price. I'm going to one of Blake's workshops just for a "tune up," even though he's my mentor for life whether I pay or not. He's a sweet soul, Blake, and he loves writers, so get involved on his site even if you can't afford the workshops. He will respond to emails, too. Chris Soth is another soul mate in the business, and his DVDs will get you there--the best I've ever used, and I'm very skeptical about most DVDs on screenwriting because they're mostly pontificating, not teaching. These deliver, and I return to them often. And if you have enough money to invest in his full course for one year, (it's a write off for writers), do it!

As for sites, again, if you start with any of these, you'll find a treasure trove of links to other sites, so here you go:

Blake Snyder
Chris Soth's Million-Dollar Screenwriting
Wordplay: Screenwriting Secrets from Working Screenwriters/FADE IN:
Hollywood Creative Directory
Master Scene Checklist
One Slack Martian's Screenwriting Blog
The Unknown Screenwriter
Living the Romantic Comedy

**Bonus question: What is your artist mission statement? In the projects you have developed, are planning to develop, what is important to you to convey?
I want to write scripts that speak to the resilience of the human spirit, period. But I focus on the experiences of women of "a certain age," whose wisdom is often ignored. I'm writing for those actresses who are having trouble finding work these days. And it's working!

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