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Editor Sara Anne Fox to the writers: “Here are the rules. There are no rules.’

Editor Sara Anne Fox/Photo: Kate O’Hare

After a career spent covering TV as a journalist and being immersed in that kind of storytelling, when I decided to try my hand at writing a Christmas movie, I needed some help.

So, I turned to a woman I had met at an event, and I’m glad I did (the script, my first, was cast and has a director attached).

Her name is Sara Anne Fox (website here), and her name is Saran.

A writer herself, she worked as a development manager. Now, in her work as an editor and script consultant, she helps writers – screenwriters, novelists, non-fiction writers – improve.

If the writer has obvious talent on the page, she works to improve the story, character, and structure. If the writer has talent but can’t deliver the page yet, they help the work get there.

And if there’s not a whole lot of talent to be seen…well, we’ll get to that in a minute.

Recently, I asked Fox to leave his beloved neighborhood of Silver Lake, and we sat down to talk writing at a beer hall on LA’s Westside. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

On the hardest thing about working with writers:

When a prospect, or a client, has a script he has already written, and he has no talent.

But often that’s the hardest part, because what I have to tell them is, “There may be a screenwriter in you, but we have to step back and we have to start an education.” I’m going to be on screenwriting 101 with you. We’re going to watch movies, read scripts, do scenes that I assign to you, to see if you can really do this, because your script isn’t good.

… But when someone really can’t do it, I say, “You might want to hire me to rewrite your script.” So the hardest thing is to tell someone the truth, but I do. I have to do it. I have to be honest.

And I could point them in the right direction, if they don’t want to work with me. I would say, “Take screenwriting classes. Are you going to the cinema? Do you read scripts? »

I’m here to help, but I’m not here to mess with someone just to take care of a client. Fortunately, I had had very few.

On the truth of the old adage, “to write is to rewrite”:

They speak of the “vomit draft”. I don’t like this expression. Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is crap – and he didn’t say crap. And I don’t like to put [the first draft] down, because it’s a plan. You finish something, then it’s writing and rewriting.

To write is to rewrite. So I tell them, “You are going to rewrite that.

So I have a client, we had a script and it won awards. He’s on the way up, this guy. And we worked on it for a long time. He must have revised scenes and large parts of the script at least 20 times. At least 20 times he went back and refined it.

Because every time I read it, and every time I watched something on TV or was about to go to bed, an idea came to me. I would write it, because you are always creative.

On the magic and mystery of writing:

Here are the rules, there are no rules. So write what you know; write down what you don’t know. You have imagination.

Pete Hamill, the journalist, author, screenwriter, said, “When you sit down to write, be disciplined but loose.” And John Milius, the great screenwriter, said, “Screenwriting is magical and mystical because once you sit down and start writing, something else takes over.”

For me, as a writer, my characters are smarter than me. When I sit down and write to work on a script, my characters know a lot more than I do, because they’re buried somewhere inside of me.

But I’m more mature than them, because they want to stay on stage forever. “Oh come on, let’s settle this. How about a dialogue on the nose? So the whole process is really interesting.

On what “dialogue on the nose” means:

You need to make your dialogue interesting. It has to be economical, and it can’t be on the nose. It’s the way people talk, but not the way people talk.

[On-the-nose dialogue is] not interesting. That says it all, to be obvious. A man is cheating on his wife. She suspects. He comes home at three in the morning, lipstick on his collar, and she’s there with the rolling pin, right?

He comes in and says, “Baby,” and she says, “Where have you been? It’s 3 o’clock in the morning.

Now the dialogue on the nose would be for him to say, “Oh, I was out with the guys. What’s wrong?” “You were with a woman. I know that.” “No, I wasn’t.”

No. What he does is he looks around and says. “This place is a dump.” Now what did it do? It’s a diversionary tactic.

We know he cheated, and we know she suspects, but rather than defending herself by saying, “Oh no, honey, I love you. I was just hanging out with the boys,” … you know what’s going on here. A marriage is in trouble, and he won’t deal with it.

So what’s going on? Then, if it’s the beginning of a movie or the second scene, we want to know what’s going on here?

So the dialogue on the nose tells you exactly what’s going on. The elite dialogue, the economic dialogue, not the dialogue on the nose, draws you in and shows you what’s going on underneath.

On the process of working with a writer:

Obviously [you need] intelligence and experience, expertise. You must be articulate. You have to know how to communicate.

You have to understand the animal, which is my client. Can I tease them? Do they have a sense of humor? How to get the best out of them? How can I establish a relationship?

But for me, it’s also a matter of intuition.

This wonderful client, we are working on a third project. It’s on its first five pages, and he sent it to me. Something was wrong and I felt it. I sensed it. You feel it, then you examine it, then you say, “I see what’s missing, move this. and that makes more sense.

The fact is that you work with intuition, intellect, heart, your brain and your experience.

That’s why I say to screenwriting students or aficionados or newcomers, “Google AFI’s greatest American films, a hundred of them.” Look at them. Read scripts. Sit with your back to the screen when watching a movie, listen to the music and dialogue of sound effects, dialogue rhythm, subtext, what is said, what is not said, the value of pauses and silence.

Writing is really going into a room alone with your muse, with your pastor, with your subconscious, with everyone you’ve loved or hated, coming out on the page. It’s really being alone with yourself and your story.

On the process and that there are “no rules” (other than proper formatting, spelling and grammar, of course):

There is all that [screenwriting] emotion software. And I personally say, stay away from it all. Take one class, take two classes, then go write. So go write.

You’ll take what you like in class, but the best thing to do is go to the movies and watch some good TV. It’s the Platium age of TV, look how things are built.

Write your story if it helps. Make a plan if that helps. Do your bullet points. Write a long synopsis, whatever will help you.

Whatever helps you find your characters’ voices, just do what works. Here are the rules, there are no rules, and if someone tells you otherwise, ignore them.

Besides editing stories and consulting scripts, Fox is also available to talk to groups and classes. Click here for more information.

Picture: Kate O’Hare

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