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Meet the Hack Behind “Screenwriting Tips… You Hack”

Meet the Hack Behind "Screenwriting Tips... You Hack"

About two years ago, Xander Bennett liked to Tweet his observations, both sarcastic and sincere, on being a struggling screenwriter. He was prolific — so much so that when a follower told him to shut up with the Tweeting and start blogging, he recognized it as good advice.

That led to his popular Tumblr “Screenwriting Tips…You Hack.” One reader who took particular notice was Will Akers, author of “Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make it Great.”

Under Akers’ tutelage, Bennett wrote his own book, “Screenwriting Tips, You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter.”

Now, in addition to now being available in bookstores, Bennett’s writing can be found as part of The Blacklist’s new blog network. Bennett talked with indieWIRE about his industry experiences, his fellow writers and the changes he’d most like to see in the world of screenwriting.

I guess the logical, first question would be: when did the blog project first start for you?

A little over two years ago, I got a job working as a script reader at a production company. I really wanted to break into the industry, but I really wanted someone to sponsor my visa so I could stay in LA. I was reading lots of terrible scripts, and I started angrily tweeting about them, without naming names or specifying the script. This guy on Twitter said, “Man, you should start a blog.” (I think he wanted me to shut up and stop Tweeting.) So I started a blog and gave it a snarky title, and started posting tips once a day on how to make their spec scripts better.

You usually keep it to a couple of sentences per post. Is that out of necessity or what you felt most comfortable with?

I think that’s the easiest way to build a following, to reach people. I read thousands of feeds a day and I know that when I see a blog post that’s too long, I scan it. If it’s not super engaging, I pass it. I wanted something that would convey information really quickly and effectively.

So what was the process of this becoming a book?

“Your Screenplay Sucks” is my favorite book on screenwriting. When I first read it, I blogged about it, tweeted about it, just kept going on about it to everybody. I guess Will somehow found those posts and emailed me and said, “Thanks. I love your work as well. You have a book here. Let me help you.” He walked me through how to write sample chapters and how to write a proposal.

That’s a great success story in terms of getting help from your peers. Do you think that’s the exception or the rule in the screenwriting world?

I think that’s the rule. I think screenwriters tend to hang together pretty well. Blake Snyder [author of “Save the Cat”], from everything I’ve heard, was an incredibly generous guy who would go out of his way to help people. All my experiences are that people are happy to help out.

On the post where you announced that your book was being released, you mentioned that one of the things in the book was a lot of “pun-based humor.” Do you think that you can be an effective screenwriter without a love of language and wordplay?

Maybe you can’t be a great comedy screenwriter, because so many effective jokes hinge on weird combinations of language that we’ve never seen before. You can probably be a dramatic screenwriter if you stayed traditional. It involves finding your voice, more than anything. Readers respond to something different, something exciting, something where you’re connecting with those neuroses. If that involves wordplay or some other kind of phrase, good. Maybe you still have an effective voice.

A lot of your posts have to do with the industry. Is there any part in the writing process where you can tune that out? Or does the logistical aspect of how it gets produced have to always be present in your mind?

I think it helps to some extent if you’re familiar with how a film is actually made. Most screenwriters should have some experience on set, just to see the power of your own work actually being shot and acted by people. You see how one sentence can create another day on a shooting schedule. It can be quite brutal if you add in a helicopter shot or a huge crowd scene. It’s easy to forget about that and just write in a bubble and not think about logistics. I think you do have to keep logistics in mind. Maybe not on the first draft, but as you go on with it, it’s good to know.

In one of your posts, you said that no one’s trying to stop you, that everyone wants to read a good script. But do you think that it’s hard for the best content to rise to the top?

There’s definitely cronyism and nepotism in Hollywood. Everyone knows that. But it’s never been my experience. Personally, I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who are intelligent and hungry and energetic, who really want your take on an idea and a brilliant script. Maybe I haven’t reached those higher levels, where you get the archetypal bone-headed executive, but everyone I’ve dealt with in Hollywood has been amazing.

In my experience, these people are dying to read fantastic scripts. I think most writers who are toiling out there with no reference point tend to think of Hollywood as very closed off and snobbish, having no time for young writers. But that’s not really the case. If you have somebody on board for your ideas and your vision, then you can talk to them on your level.

Scott Myers is your new partner on the Blacklist blog. How has reading his blog, “Go Into The Story,” affected the work that you do?

Scott’s amazing. He’s the most insanely prolific blogger around. The guy posts 10 times a day while also being a working writer. I have no idea how he does it. He has the best screenwriting blog and I learn a lot from reading him. It’s always inspirational, his anecdotes about his own experiences in Hollywood.

A recent BlackList competition was looking for people to respond to the question, “What would you change about movies?” What would be your answer for that?

For me, the short version would be, “More female characters.” That’s something that really stuck out for me reading spec scripts. It’s quite a male industry and it feels like there is a huge proportion of men writing specs. It’s terrible. They read like these people have never met a real woman in their life. You can see that it’s getting better, but Hollywood is still very male. I think you can see that in the films being made. The women in those films don’t resemble anyone I’ve ever met. A big deal gets made anytime one has “real” characters. In the book, I specifically used the female gender pronoun when referring to the generic writer. It’s my own little affirmative action.

Do you think it’s important for people to know that the snarkiness of the blog and the book isn’t coming from bitterness, but from seeing people do less than what they’re capable of?

If you’re going to do this and put hours and hours of your life into studying film and television and it’s burning up inside you, why not do it properly? You’ve got a shot at this. Why half-ass it and make a cliched version that’s copying someone else’s voice? Why not do your version brilliantly, the best you can possibly do it? There’s a better chance of someone responding to that. It’s definitely not coming from a bitterness towards the system (although I think there are things wrong with the system). It’s a gentle wake-up call.

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