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A few questions about… screenwriting
with Les Zig
I had a chat with Les Zig recently to ask him a few questions about screenwriting. This interview originally published in the Bendigo Writers’ Council Muse News July 2020 edition.
Les Zig is the author of The Shadow in the Wind (Pinion Press 2019), August Falling (Pantera Press 2018), Just Another Week in Suburbia (Pantera Press 2017) and Pride (Busybird Publishing 2017). His stories often focus on characters facing adversity who are trying to find their place in the world. He’s had three screenplays optioned, and 20 unproduced screenplays place and shortlist in various awards. His stories and articles have been published in various print and digital journals. He blogs, often yelling at clouds, at www.leszig.com.
How did you get your start in writing and getting published?
I got my start the way most writers do – through reading. I loved reading as a kid. I loved opening a book, and that feeling that from the first page that the story was going to take me on an adventure.
I wanted to write stories, and give other readers the same feeling. There’s also something magical and empowering about a creation that’s limited only by your imagination and your ability to articulate your vision.
I handwrote my first book as a 16–17-year-old – part one of an intended four-book fantasy epic. That book would be awful if I looked at it today, but these stories taught me about the endurance needed to write a novel. But I wouldn’t be published for 30 more years, although I had lots of almosts.
What it really comes down to is perseverance. You will get rejections. You will get criticisms. You will have doubts. You’ll fall out of love with your book. You’ll grow to hate it. It’ll bore you. It’ll frustrate you. You’ll want to ditch it. All this is normal. The only way you’ll ever get published is if you persevere.
What are your influences in your writing?
In prose, my three biggest influences have been JRR Tolkien, JD Salinger, and David Eddings – all authors I read when I was young.
JRR Tolkien taught me about world-building. When you read The Lord of the Rings, every character has a backstory and lineage. Every location they visit has history that stretches into antiquity. It gives that world unbelievable depth, which is why I think it’s endured as a fantasy classic – it feels so real.
JD Salinger and David Eddings both taught me the same thing: about keeping my prose simple. Because I grew up on a lot of fantasy, I was reading lots of formal prose with weighty descriptions. Both Salinger and Eddings had a more conversational tone, which I found truer to how I wanted to write.
In screenwriting, William Goldman (All the President’s Men, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Misery, The Princess Bride) is my favourite writer. He had such a great handle on storytelling, whatever the genre.
In filmmaking, Steven Spielberg is another who’s always appealed to me. Often, his films are about epic events – aliens landing, dinosaurs running amok, archaeological treasure hunts, etc. – but he always a find way to ground the story and keep it relatable and believable within the universe he’s created.
What makes screenwriting different to any other writing?
Screenwriting is a visual medium. You have to think about what the audience is seeing, and how to communicate everything through that filter.
In prose, a character can sit in an armchair, think through a situation, and come to some conclusion. We read what’s going on in their head. But imagine that on screen. It’s not going to be very exciting. So how do you translate that scene in a way that the audience is going to find engaging? (Obviously, you could use a voiceover/narration, but that’s considered something of a cheat, unless you do it well.)
Prose is a cerebral medium. Screenwriting is a visual medium. What works in one won’t work in the other, so you’re always forced to think innovatively.
What’s the process of taking a screenplay and getting it to the screen?
In some ways it can be similar to publishing: you submit to a production company, and if they’re interested they take it on, and move forward to make it. That would involve revisions; getting a director on board; the pre-production of finding locations, rehearsals, casting; shooting; editing; marketing – and that’s offering an abbreviated look at what’s needed.
The difference worth noting immediately is that while a novel is an individual’s vision – and a good editor will help the author realise that vision – a screenplay becomes a collaborative process as other people get involved, such as a director, a producer, a script editor, the actors, the studio, etc. Everybody has input.
However – and, again, like publishing – in Australia, a lot of companies aren’t open to unsolicited submissions.
That leaves the alternative of trying to make something yourself – like self-publishing. Then you’re wholly in charge of the project, who you bring on board, who you cast, etc. But then you face the same query that a production company would – money. Unfortunately, Australia’s arts community is always impoverished, and it’s a struggle moving forward.
The other worthwhile thing to do is network. Join the Australian Writers Guild (the guild for screenwriters) for example, and network with other professionals. You might find a director looking for a particular story, or you might be able to pitch an idea. There are no guarantees obviously, but it’s important to put yourself out there.
What makes a good story in any medium of writing?
The most important thing for me is the journey the character takes – not so much the physical journey, but who they are when they begin the story, and who they are when they end it.
Luke Skywalker is an example in the Original Trilogy. He’s just a kid with dreams who’s thrown into a galactic conflict. He has adventures, he fails often, but he grows as a result. The Luke at the beginning of A New Hope is impulsive, callow, and short-sighted. The Luke at the end of The Return of the Jedi is measured, composed, and able. While we’re not battling galactic turmoils, we can relate to his journey of somebody who wants to get to a better place.
But it doesn’t always have to be a good place. I love Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies. A child born into a mob family, he wants something different for himself. A war on the family forces him to take a stand. While he holds onto the ideal of becoming somebody better, he also embraces the cruelty of his world and thrives in it. You can see he enjoys the power, and leaves behind the idealistic young man who returned from the war wishing for an honest life.
I love seeing characters change – especially when they’re coming from humble beginnings, or are against the odds. While we have our skilled heroes – like James Bond – I think the story’s always more satisfying when it’s the every-person who evolves into something greater, because it’s a reflection of ourselves as we move through life.
What is your best tip for getting into screenwriting?
The obvious tip is to be educated to do it – there are good courses you can find. But, like prose, the thing you can do is immersion: watch how television shows and movies operate. Read scripts. There’s a great website called ‘Drew’s Script-o-Rama’, which has scripts from a lot of movies – even earlier drafts that had been abandoned.
Watch the best storytellers and how they build stories, characters, and events. While I’m biased towards the 1970s and 1980s, there are so many good movies from that era that are educational: The Godfather and The Godfather II, A Dog Day Afternoon, Jaws, Rocky, Superman, The Verdict, Kramer vs Kramer, A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, E.T., Back to the Future, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Poltergeist, etc., that introduce an interesting premise and then build on it.
I’ve always thought the three best genres to watch in terms of world-building are courtroom dramas, horror movies, and sporting underdog stories. In today’s action movies, there’s a tendency to just throw as much action at the screen as possible at the sacrifice of world and character building.
A courtroom drama has to build both sides of the case, introduce stakes, and have a logical, cohesive argument that works its way to its conclusion. A good horror is always a slow build up to get us to care about the characters, meet their world, and then be aghast when it goes awry. The sporting underdog story is simple: an underdog individual or team battles the odds to get to a big contest.
I think those three genres – when done well – have an inherent structure that needs to be employed for them to function. They always set their characters on a journey, start them somewhere basic, and then have them encounter obstacles, grow from their encounters, and then end the story in a different place to which they started it.
A few questions about… self-publishing with E. J. Dawson
Beginning a writing journey with an epic 21 book series, Ejay started her author career in 2014 and has taken on the ups and downs of self-publishing with her fantasy series The Last Prophecy since 2016. At the start of 2019, she put the series on the backburner to write Behind the Veil in 25 days, and signed a publishing contract for the gothic noir novel to independent publisher Literary Wanderlust. Believing in more than one path to career in publishing, Ejay pursues self-publishing alongside querying traditional publishers with multiple manuscripts.
How did you get into self-publishing?
When I turned 30, I was incorrectly informed I wouldn’t be able to have children. It was a crossroad that forced me to ask myself what I wanted to get out of life, if it wasn’t family. I turned to the one thing that made me happy: writing. What eventuated was a convoluted steam-flavoured fantasy but, realising it was a rather large series that would take 10 years to publish, I knew I had to self-publish. I wasn’t scared, but I was nervous. The more I looked into it the clearer the idea of self-publishing became.
At the time I joined Nanowrimo, an international writing challenge, one of the prizes for which was with the beta publishing platform Pronoun. It assisted with the self-publishing process completely, made everything incredibly easy for me, and I learned a lot from them. When I was ready – after much of Scott’s help – I self-published The Hidden Monastery, the first novella in a 21 book/novella series called The Last Prophecy series.
I went on to add another novella and a book to that series and self-published them before Pronoun shut down. I’m now using Amazon KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) and Draft 2 Digital, which reaches other platforms such as Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, and a few others.
What are your influences in your writing?
I draw heavily from my environment and music. Random things come to my mind, so I carry a notebook with me to write them down as they come to me. The more you get into a habit of doing this, the more notebooks you have. (I have three active ones for different genre projects.)
The important thing is to find things you must write. It won’t always be the case – you have to make a habit of writing, as with any other craft. Once you’re used to writing regularly, it becomes a necessity to do. I find that sometimes a story will wrestle me to the computer and compel me to finish it. I wrote such a story in 25 days – Behind the Veil, a gothic noir – coming in at 80K words. I was later offered a publishing contract from Literary Wanderlust, a small independent US press.
Are self-published books saleable and how do you promote them?
Any book is sellable. The difference is whether self-published work sells compared to a traditional book, and the answer is yes, provided you produce a quality piece, and do the necessary work to promote it.
With all the control over your marketing, budget, and growth, you can do it easily, but there is a lot more give than take for some time to start. For example, many authors have the freedom to give their book away for free. You may think that’s selling yourself and your work short, but with a new book being published every 5 minutes on Amazon, you have to be very competitive. There are tips and tricks to doing this, but what I can tell you is no one method works. It takes consist work over long periods of time, and requires a huge amount of commitment. You are your own publisher, marketer, designer, accountant, street team, social media manager, website manager… the list is endless.
What you can do though, is make these things simple, and there are heaps of people willing to help.
Are there any good resources to access to help with self-publishing?
Given the growth of self-publishing over the last 10–20 years, it has caused a host of problems and then their solutions. I sincerely recommend a few different resources, one of which is Alli – the Alliance of Independent Authors. They’re a watchdog for a lot of scamming services, but they also call out authors who are gaming the system and ruining it for those that are doing their best to play fair.
Alli aren’t the only ones watching out – the SWFA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America) has an excellent resource of who may be doing things unethically on their website, Writer Beware.
It isn’t just a case of who to avoid, but who to use. Many bloggers, authors, and agents have recommended publishing platforms and services to assist in any writing venture. The thing to do is to make sure you research thoroughly. I recommend finding people who write in your genre on Twitter, since it’s a wonderful platform for information and has a huge amount of writers swapping information and tips. I was recently sent a message from a stranger on Twitter asking about my experiences publishing with Literary Wanderlust to which I could assure them I was very happy.
How do you go about the design for the cover artwork for your books?
This is one of the subjects I will adamantly state that unless you are a designer, leave to the professionals. A $5 cover from Fiverr or something you’ve done yourself with little experience or research is one of the worst blunders I see a lot of first time authors make.
Our writing should not be about appearances, but the first thing you do with any book, even at the store, is look at the cover. Depending on your genre, different things are going to grab your attention, and as much as we shouldn’t judge books by their covers, we absolutely do.
There are numerous services that do covers, and range in price, from the $5 Fiverr covers to the US$1000plus customised artwork. The important thing is to analyse both your budget and your market. Your primary budget should always for to your editor since that’s one of the most highly critiqued aspects of self-publishing. After that, there should be a marketing budget that includes the cover.
To work out what a good cover might be like for you, go to the genre you’re writing in on Amazon and scan the covers. There will be a host of them all different styles, sometimes very much the same. This is where you can use recommendations from writers groups on Facebook or Twitter. Quite often someone will have a contact they recommend. Word of mouth isn’t just for talking about books; most of my contacts and services come from good references.
If it’s expensive in the long run for you, work with professionals until you’re comfortable doing it, and can learn the skills to do so yourself. I’ve done several covers myself, one for an unpublished novella in my Last Prophecy series, and another for my Wattpad novel, One with Rage. I use these same skills to create marketing material, but there are other platforms to do this quickly and easily on social media, such as Book Brush and Canva.
What sort of audience will I reach by self-publishing?
The audience will be predominantly online ebook authors, but it ultimately comes down to your genre. The romance and crime genres are some of the most popular fiction, and there are hosts of bloggers and newsletters you can pay a small fee to be on the page and in their newsletters.
What this can mean is that you don’t end up in your local independent book shop or even Dymocks. The question of paper copies is easy now with Amazon’s print on demand service, with other platforms using Ingram Spark or other printers. While many of these book stores can be receptive to having your books there, if you’re not familiar with the store or don’t know the people there, it may be difficult to convince them to stock your book. One of the best ways to do this is to become familiar with the staff first, which should be called for anyway as a reader!
What’s been the process from publishing your own work to getting a contract with an independent publisher?
I decided to put Behind the Veil up on a Twitter event called PitMad, where it caught the interest of the editor at Literary Wanderlust. I submitted to them and they offered me a contract as well as interest in my other work.
But I decided to self-publish my trilogy Queen of Spades so I had more control over the release date of the books, and the characters within them.
I have a much more active involvement in my own work rather than the publisher. I do something pretty much every day to market or work on the recently published first book in Queen of Spades trilogy, Awakening. Whether it’s on a blog or retweeting a review, I’m very proactive in the day-to-day process from the point of creation to the continuation of marketing.
For Behind the Veil, the process is much slower, and I need to do little until asked for the developmental and copy-editing. The editor at Literary Wanderlust has other authors she works with and so it’s my responsibility to step up when she’s ready with my work, and not worry about it when it’s not my turn. Once the work is published, I’ll take a more active role, and use my self-publishing marketing skills to help fill any gaps in the marketing plan for Literary Wanderlust.
For many writers, even those with big five publishers, there’s little to no marketing budget. You have to have a proactive approach, be ready to have something consistently going on with your book, advertise it, talk about it, put it on social media. Finding a balance between spamming and promotion is tricky, which is why it’s best to find a platform you’re comfortable using day in and out, so when you market a book you have people interested in you and what you have to say.
What are a few of your best tips for taking on self-publishing compared to traditional publishing?
Be prepared to work hard. Be satisfied with writing a book. Above all, be patient.
These easily apply to both self-publishing and traditional, and the thing to remember about each one, is that there is a difference between being a writer, and wanting to make a profession out of a hobby. Think of all the artists, woodcarvers, knitters, musicians and actors you know.
For many, it’s just a creative outlet. The saying that everyone has a book inside them is a little misleading because for self-publishing they recommend getting a book out every 6 months to stay relevant.
Some people only have one. That doesn’t mean their book is any less valued or important than a writer with a trillion ideas. Find what suits you. Do you have a lot of stories, or just one? Chances are if it’s just one, for now it’s your whole world. You’ll polish it and spend time on it, and take the greatest care reviewing it until it glows. This is the kind of manuscript that you can look at getting an agent for or even publish with an independent press.
But if you’re prepared to do the work, make sure your writing is properly edited, developed and marketed, and you have lots of story ideas, then look into self-publishing. You never know what you may find or how much you enjoy it.