Pilar’s greatest accomplishment is the success of her students. They’ve worked on TV shows such as House of the Dragon, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, Homeland, Dear White People, Grey’s Anatomy, Silicon Valley, and The Chi and have sold feature films and pitches to Netflix, Sony, Warner Bros. and other major studios.
For more information about Pilar, her classes, consultations, book and podcast, go to www.onthepage.tv
You mention in the book that you started as a “sandwich girl” who read a friend's script and your career took off from there.
For people who may not be familiar with your work, can you tell everyone how you got started in coaching screenwriters?
That's a bit of "spin" on my part to show writers how to logline the more interesting parts of their life. It took a bit longer, of course! But, yes, I was overeducated and underemployed when I started reading scripts for a friend.
Those coverage samples turned into a job at Amblin, a senior story analyst position at DreamWorks, and inspired the writing tools that became the basis for my classes and books.
Since so many aspiring writers complain that they don't have time to write, can you talk about how this issue inspired you to write your book?
I came to realize that, for busier writers with jobs and kids, my class was a key part of their weekly writing time. So, after teaching a writing tool, I’d tell them they have ten minutes to try it out on their own story.
I was shocked to see the high quality of work they turned out when they just had ten minutes of focused writing time. From that, the idea of “The Coffee Break Screenwriter” was born.
Sometimes it’s not about finding the time; it’s about getting rid of the distractions and doing one focused thing.
One aspect that lets your book stand out involves how it allows the reader to sketch out the story as they read.
Most screenwriting books lecture the reader about character or structure and may have exercises at the end of each chapter, but your book lets the reader start working on vital aspects of their story almost immediately.
What led you to take this approach?
All of my classes are “learn while doing.” I’ve seen great results so the book is designed in the same way. I also encourage readers to skip over what isn’t working for them and keep moving on to what does. A screenplay or pilot will still be the end result.
Many of the projects that your clients have worked on have topped the box office rankings and the TV ratings.
What do you feel is the biggest piece of advice that you've offered to your clients that has led to so many of them enjoying such successful careers?
Be open on the page and in person. Sometimes the story takes hold as you write. Sometimes a chance meeting opens doors.
Another wonderful aspect of the book involves how you present each step of the writing process and break it down into steps that most writers can complete in ten minutes or less.
Do you see the tasks outlined here as more of a tool for writers to manage their time?
Or does it go deeper than that, such as giving writers the tools to overcome their excuses for not writing?
I'm hoping it's both. It also depends on the writer's needs when reading it.
Some find freedom in cracking open the book at any point and getting something done on their script whether it's an outline, rewrite, or a pitch. Others like to go step-by-step until they're finished.
At the end of the book, you ask some of your students what they should do if they have only ten minutes to improve any aspect of their writing or their career.
If I turn these questions around on you:
What advice would you give writers on how they could use ten minutes to improve a scene?
What’s the key, emotional action line that shows what’s really going on in the scene? If it’s not there, write it. If there’s too much emotional noise, edit it.
What advice would you give writers on how they could use ten minutes to improve a sequence?
Try a "genre pass." Your sequence of scenes may be an effectively moving story, but is there also a major scare or laugh or romantic moment in there that leans into the genre, mood, or tone?
What advice would you give writers on how they could use ten minutes to improve their script?
Edit. Take ten minutes at a time to eliminate long set-ups in the scene or come in a little later into the dialogue. Try this ten minutes at a time in places where it’s needed and you’ll have a tighter, more readable script.
What advice would you give writers on how they could use ten minutes to improve their careers?
Take ten minutes to tell someone how much you value their work. It’s a start to a professional relationship that doesn’t begin with an ask.
In your career as a script consultant, you've worked with numerous writers to help them achieve some fantastic results.
For screenwriters looking for coaches or consultants, what advice would you give them on what to look for in a coach?
A good coach or consultant understands the intentions of your project and helps you meet them through story and execution. If they don’t seem to “get” your work, use a “comp” (a comparative project) to express the kind of show or feature you’re going for. If they still don’t understand your intention or just shoot it down, they may not be the right fit for you.
Special Thanks to Pilar Alessandra for her time and to Ken Lee at Michael Wiese Productions for providing a review copy of The Coffee Break Screenwriter.
Story Into Screenplay offers script analysis and one-on-one consultations with clients in various stages of the screenwriting process.
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