#2–Bill’s top 10 highlights for the 2008 Austin Film Festival and Screenwriters Conference

Affblog
Over the next 5 days, I am going to post the highlights of this year’s
AFF screenwriters conference.  Well, my highlights, that is.

To continue our journey, here are #s 3 & 4.

Enjoy!

– – – – –

3. Had a writing epiphany – About two hours after our run-in with the deer, both Robbye and I were understandably a little shaky.  We’d done our best to soldier on through the night, but the wind was definitely out of our sails.  Even worse, everywhere I looked in front of me I saw deer.  Whether they were real or imagined made no difference.  My freaked out meter was near redline.

We needed to stop.

We pulled off the Interstate in the middle of nowhere.  This tiny oasis of light was the only thing we’d seen for over an hour.  There was a gas station and there was a small café.  Good enough for us.

We went inside the café, The Plainsman, and instantly felt like we’d stepped onto the set of some kitschy indie Americana drama.  As we walked in, we were greeted by—no kidding—a huge stuffed deer head nailed to the paneled wall.  Aside from the waitresses, who wore matching smocks (of course), the only other people in the place were two regulars, Bill and Carl, both of whom were members of the bib overall brigade.

Okay…I realize I need to take a sec to say this.  So hold on the story, please.

A common mistake by many new writers (yours truly included) is to write dialogue where characters are constantly calling or referring to each other by name.  It looks like this:

John: Martha, would you like a martini?

Martha:  If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, John.  I don’t like martinis.

Now…yes…people do, indeed, call each other by name at times.  What seems to be a universal problem with folks at the starting line of their writerly journey, however, is that they tend to overuse character names in dialogue.  Basically, you can spot a newbie a mile away this way.  And when you become attuned to it, it becomes absolutely glaring.

Because this has been an issue for me in the past, I am very cognizant of how many times I use character names in dialogue.  Of the several passes (i.e., editing reads) I give a script before I call it done, I always do a names once over.  It’s critical.

Okay…now I can return to the story.

Robbye and I are sitting in a booth, bleary-eyed and out-of-whack, sipping the colored water the place was trying to pass of as coffee.  During this time, something was working its way through the veil between my unconscious and conscious minds.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until I heard this exchange:

Kathy: You need more coffee, Bill (customer, not me)?

Bill: No, thanks, Kathy.

Kathy: How ‘bout you, Carl?

Carl:  I dunno.  Hmm…Sure, Kathy.  I’ll take some.

Bill: Well, Kathy, if Carl’s takin’ some, I’ll have one more cup.

Kathy: Sure thang, Bill.

I kid you not.  It sounded exactly like that.  Almost word-for-word.

Through the rest of our Plainsman dining experience, I had a hard time focusing on the conversation between Robbye and me because me ear kept drifting back to the conversations of the indigenous peoples.  Every time I tuned into one, it was a virtual replay of the Bill/Kathy/Carl exchange.

By the time we walked out, my writer’s mind was officially blown.  All of a sudden, my hard-and-fast rule wasn’t so hard-and-fast anymore.  I realized that there was at least one small pocket in the world where real-life people spoke like characters in a newbie script.  If there was one place, there were bound to be others.

I’d had an epiphany.  Though I will remain vigilant about my name usage in dialogue, I will relax a little.  Especially if I am writing characters who hail from small towns in the southern part of Kansas.

4. Kicked ass at moderating three panels – I mentioned in an earlier post that I had asked the AFF if I could try my hand at moderating a few panels this year.  I was very excited when they assigned my to three of them over the course of the conference.

I printed off pages of research materials, determined to be the sharpest, most engaging moderator the AFF had ever seen. My plan was to use the drive down to Austin to go through my research and notes and formulate a plan for each panel.  And even though I wasn’t exactly sure what angle of approach I was going to take for the “Know Your Rights” panel, I was feeling pretty damn skippy about the rest of them. 

That is…

Until we hit a deer.

CRAP!

And then I realized that I’d forgotten all my research and notes on my desk.

DOUBLE CRAP!

Luckily, there was a computer and printer at the Driskill Hotel.  Friday was a light day for me, so I had time to squirrel away and re-research.  I was able to re-print most of the stuff I’d left at home.  It was difficult, but also I managed to extract myself from the collective for an hour or so between Friday and Saturday and do my preparation work.

Also, I’d met a really cool guy by the name of Scott Richter on my Competitions panel.  Scott’s not only a writer, but he’s also a lawyer…and he won the 2007 AFF teleplay competition with his GREY’S ANATOMY spec.  He was a great co-panelist, and he and I had a rapport from the very beginning.  Felt very easy and very conversational, and we were able to build on each other’s points in ways that I think made the panel far more valuable for participants than it’s been in other years.  Anyway…he was slated to be one of the panelists on the Rights panel, so I asked him if he would have breakfast with Robbye and me beforehand and help me figure out how to make the most it.

Well, to make a long story er…not quite as long…the all three panels went swimmingly. Robbye had heard people talking about my Competitions panel and the Pitch Competition rounds I’d judged, and apparently the word on the street was that I was a guy whose panels you wanted to catch.  So all three were packed.  Standing room only, actually. 

I got a lot of great compliments from the folks that attended the panels, many of whom (and many of the panelist, too) said they were the best-moderated panels they’d ever seen at the AFF.  In fact, several people who were in attendance at my first Sunday panel showed up at the second one because they enjoyed the first one so much.

It was cool and humbling at the same time.

When all was said and done, I was just glad that I had delivered some value for the participants.  I was glad that I could bring a writer’s perspective—their perspective—the panel topics, and ask the questions they were burning to ask.  And I was glad people had fun.  That there was laughter at the same time as there was learning.

My two favorite moments:

–In the “Online World” panel, Brad Neely got defective instructions and showed up 30 minutes late.  TO make things worse, there was no chair for him.  We tried to get a standard AFF-issue high director’s chair for him, but all the volunteers could rustle up was a plain old chair.  As a result, poor Brad, though he’s kind of a big guy, sat a full 24 inches lower than the rest of us.

The first time I directed a question to him, I said, “Brad, I think you might want to weigh in on this.  What’s the perspective from the Shire?”

The place was in stitches for nearly a minute.  Brad, who was obviously feeling a little discombobulated and not quite sure why he was there in the first place got a big, ole smile on his face.

“That’s a good one.”

The ice was broken for Brad, and the conversation finally kicked into high gear.

–In the “Niche Projects” panel, Turk Pipkin brought in a twelver of Shiner Bock.  Everyone on the panel cracked one open, and we all swilled beer as we tried to talk smart.  During the Q&A, we rewarded the best questions with a beer.  So…okay…as much as I’d like to believe every panel was a favorite because of me, I have to admit that the beer was definitely the star here.

During the panel, we were talking a lot of about securing financing, in particular through getting sponsorships from companies.  At the end of the panel, I raised my bottle and said, “I’d like to thank you all for coming to the ‘Niche Projects’ panel, brought to you by Shiner Bock.”

People got a kick out of that.

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