Books Magazine

Michael Van Ness

By Scriptedwhim

Michael Van Ness
Michael Van Ness is a screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles with two dogs, two babies, one wife, and an amorphous pile of chew toys that may have become sentient. (By the way, he says the only difference between baby and doggy chew toys is context.) Shortly after he earned an MFA from Northwestern University, FremantleMedia optioned his tween sitcom, MUSE. He won the Acclaim national screenwriting contest for his It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia spec; was awarded the Bindley grant for promising filmmakers; has had short plays produced in Chicago; and was published in the GRIST literary journal. He also won a literary internship at Steppenwolf Theatre, worked as a writer’s assistant, and is currently writing a fantasy novel for middle-graders. He wishes he had more time to nap. You can view an excerpt of his graphic novel, FIGMENT, here.
Michael on...
The ProcessI used to be very precious and ritualistic about my writing. Same chair, same coffee cup, banging on the same laptop I’ve had for years. Then my wife had twins and all that changed. During the day, I’m no longer a writer - I’m a “jotter.” When a little person isn’t throwing up on me or trying to stick her tongue in a wall socket, I grab my iPad and brain dump any decent ideas I’ve had. Then, late at night, I work on new pages until one of the babies wakes up. Weekends are for revising. It isn’t a perfect process, but any day where the page count goes up is a good one. Any day where the kids don’t electrocute themselves is also put in the “Win” column.
SatisfactionI like reading early drafts of my stuff. Assuming the final versions turned out better, I feel like I’m improving and that all of the consternation over cutting a scene or a line or a word was worth it.
It’s also great to hear a stranger laugh at something I wrote. Conversations with friends and family are buoyed by your history together. Winning a laugh from people who are not directly invested in your mental health is a bigger challenge and a bigger payoff.
KnowingMy wife should really answer this question for me. If she hadn’t grabbed me and said, “You hate your job. You want to write. So go do it!” I’d probably still be languishing in a cubicle somewhere. I didn’t actually “know” I was a screenwriter until my second year in grad school. I’d harbored a terrible talent crush on some of my playwriting classmates and convinced myself, for a hot mess of a minute, I could write for the theater. Thankfully, with the help of some amazing professors, I realized my strengths lie in genre work, specifically poop and fart jokes and things that blow up real good.
The First TimeI was lucky enough to have a short play workshopped and performed at Chicago Dramatists. I squirmed through the entire performance, waiting to see if the jokes would land and if the Big Twists would play. It was excruciatingly awesome. Hearing your words come out of someone else’s mouth is both surreal and satisfying. It’s also quite addictive.
AdviceRewrite your synopsis. Seriously, do it right now. Bring it up and make that sucker sing. Because once you tiptoe into the world of professional writing, a great logline or synopsis can be the difference between “I sent out some query letters, but haven’t heard back” and “I got a literary agent!”
When you think your synopsis is good enough, revise it again; it probably still needs work. Then:
1. Give it to someone who’s read the entire script or novel. Ask her if she thinks you’ve captured the tone, essence, and totally kick-ass/hilarious/heartbreaking moments of your story.
2. Find someone who’s never even heard you talk about the project, but likes similar material. After having read the synopsis, ask her if she’d pay good money to see or read the whole thing.
3. Administer a rigorous set of examinations and determine which of your friend is the most “average.” In fact, someone barely literate is a great choice. Give them the synopsis and figure out if they understood it. Did they follow the plot? Do they have questions they shouldn’t? Did they fall asleep while reading it? (This is bad, btw.)
4. Finally, find someone on the opposite end of the bell curve. The kind of person who loves to find plot holes in the latest episode of Dr. Who or who says “That doesn’t make sense” or “C’mon!” a lot during movies. If they don’t find any problems, chances are you’re good.
Oh yeah, one last thing… When you have a chance to pitch ideas to Someone Important, ALWAYS walk in with three or four more ideas than you think you’ll actually get to talk about. There’s nothing worse than hearing, “Do you have anything else?” and not having an immediate answer. It’s meeting Kryptonite.

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