Wednesday, April 28, 2010

What Transcribing A Non-Native Speaker’s English Can Teach You

So here’s another instalment on the subject of learning about writing dialogue by transcribing real speech, this time a non-native English speaker, speaking English.

As witnessed by a recent discussion on the Shooting People screenwriting forum, it’s not always obvious how to write dialogue which has a strong regional or foreign accent. The consensus seems to be that it’s best to keep phonetic spelling to a minimum, while making sure the speech itself reflects characteristic local phrases or grammatical errors, and indicating the particular accent in parenthesis.

The following excerpts are taken from another favourite podcast of mine, CBC’s Writers & Company, presented by Eleanor Wachtel. In this interview she talks to Antonio Skarmeta, the renowned Chilean novelist and screenwriter, whose English is excellent, but still clearly not his first language.

In this snippet there are a couple of aspects which typify his use of English. Try reading this with the requisite pronunciation:

.................(Chilean accent)
............…and one day my father said to “Listen son, have you seen
............that you have now enough stories publish a book?” And I
............haven't notice it, because
............for me it was fun to write!

“…have you seen that you have now…” is a not turn of phrase a native speaker would normally use, and “I haven’t notice it…” is the kind of grammatical error that a Spanish speaker would easily make.

Here Skarmeta talks about one of his mother’s favourite songs:

............This a very sad song, because's about a couple who cannot
............go living together because of
............some mysterious thing, that is
............never made clear. The man say the woman, we have to part,
............I'm sorry... I'm so sorry about, but there's nothing we can about it.

Here too, a couple of characteristic mistakes: “This a very sad song…” and “…who cannot go living together…” and “The man say…” which when coupled with the accent are more than enough to suggest a Spanish speaker, speaking English.

Using these kinds of real-life speech patterns is far more effective than trying to mimic a Spanish accent phonetically. And nowadays, with so much speech available in MP3 format on the web, eets a piss of cayk to practees zis skeel. You see?

The main priority is to make the dialogue just as easy to read as the dialogue of a native English speaker. As soon as the reader has to make an extra effort to read unconventionally spelled dialogue, you run the risk of distracting their attention from the flow of the story.

I hope Mr. Skarmeta, whose impressive oeuvre includes the classic Il Postino, doesn’t mind me using his English to make a screenwriting point. Suffice it to say that his English is infinitely more impressive than my Spanish…

Thursday, April 15, 2010

What Transcribing Real-Life Speech Can Teach You

Here’s an exercise I’ve taken to recently: Writing out, verbatim, sections of speech from podcast interviews. Not scripted shows, but interviews with people in live situations. Not only does it give you great ideas for idiom, jargon and so on, it also forces you to really listen closely to what speakers do in between their words. There’s a hell of a lot of humming and hawing, umming and erring going on there! Not always simple to transcribe, and not always essential, but a great way of sharpening your awareness of what makes for authentic sounding dialogue nonetheless.

One of my favourite podcasts at the moment is To The Best Of Our Knowledge, which has some fascinating reports, including one about karaoke, from which the following dialogue is transcribed.

The speakers are members of The Gomers, a live backing band that plays request tunes for singers to get up on stage and sing to at the High Noon Saloon in Madison Wisconsin. They call their live karaoke style, Rock Star Gomeroke. In the following excerpt, band member Steve describes how a woman with a broken leg got up to sing:

..........There's a woman who came up,
..........who was extremely drunk, AND she had
..........a broken leg, so she was on
..........crutches, in a cast… in a fairly
..........full leg cast, like it was a big
..........boot that kinda went up to the
..........knee area but down to the foot…
..........and she started spinning around!

Doesn’t this create a nice crescendo? Not just a broken leg, not just a cast, not just a big cast, but a big boot, and the woman spins around!! The general tone of speech here is informal without being slang, and the person speaking is trying hard to describe the scene accurately. Plus he’s also trying to make it fun to listen to, he’s performing as he speaks, as it were.

Here’s regular Gomeroke singer Terry-Lynn describing what it’s like to sing with the Gomers:

..........…and it's… drawing you out of
..........your daily humdrum existence,
..........where sometimes, frankly, maybe
..........somebody doesn't really give a
..........crap about you as long as you up for work…

I personally wouldn’t have thought to write, “sometimes, frankly, maybe… etc.” but there it is, it’s functional, authentic and it renders a subtext: A person trying to be diplomatic while at the same time expressing an emotion (frustration, anger). Plus the phrase humdrum existence gives this speech an educated register.

Here’s band member Bith (hope I got his name right…) talking about the joy of playing in the Gomers:

..........Each of us has, like, different
..........biases, and everything? I think…
..........when we're on stage… together…'s like, whatever we're
..........playing? We're gonna, like, do
..........our best, no matter what… and
..........that's what makes Gomers
..........enjoyable for me… to play with…
..........for me.

This guy also has a very distinct way of speaking, with his constant interjection of “like” and his question tag “and everything?” Plus he does the sing-song “ending a sentence that isn’t a question on a question-mark thing?” So here’s someone who is perhaps less verbally oriented than the other two, who perhaps doesn’t think he’s finding the right words to express what he’s feeling?

And so, the subtleties of these different people appear in the way they speak. Of course, in real life, as participants in conversation, we pick up all the nuances unconsciously. However, in order to be able to write dialogue which deliberately expresses something about a fictional character, you need to know what your options are. And this is one way of honing that skill.

In a following post: Transcribing a non-native speaker speaking English…

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Selling Pitches To Hollywood, Dream Or Business Model?

I’ve been quiet for a while, as I’ve been busy investigating the possibility of selling pitches to Hollywood, as opposed to hawking an actual finished screenplay. My thinking is: If I can support my spec writing by selling a few ideas this year, I’ll be a happy man.

But not being convinced this is a sound business model, I started out by posing the question of whether an outsider like me has any chance of selling ideas rather than scripts to Hollywood, on Twitter, TwelvePoint and Shooting People. The responses there, mainly from fellow screenwriters, was overwhelmingly: “Yeah, wouldn’t that be cool? But dream on, my friend!”

Not satisfied with that response, I went on to query various people who have more substantial industry access, and whose answers might be based on current, first-hand experience. Here are just a few of the responses I received:

Steve Kaire, high concept pitch guru:

It's extremely difficult to sell an idea on its own. I've done it with the contacts I made in Hollywood but it's a lot more difficult these days.

David H. Steinberg, aka Hollywhooped!, at DoneDealPro

The age of selling naked ideas is long gone. Maybe in 1988 you could have walked into a studio with Ace Ventura, but these days you need a completed script, A-list talent attached, and if possible, financing!

There are still people in the business of brokering ideas, but guys like Bob Kosberg are now forced to get someone else to write it on spec, or at least to try to package the project. That’s a lot of work and it means that the idea itself is worth less and less. As you know, the hard work is in the execution so ideas aren’t worth very much to begin with, but now, the odds of selling an original idea are so small that the naked idea is practically worthless, even if you could get someone interested.

Philip Botana, independent producer:

The only people who can sell off of a concept are those that have access to decision makers that can make it possible. This is usually a sales agent, producer with a distribution deal or someone with access to finance and the other two elements (producer and sales agent).

The market is also changing. There was a time when you could sell a concept at AFM and raise the money through the foreign market. This has become increasingly difficult despite the exceptions to the rule often mentioned in the press.

Scott Myer at Go Into The Story:

Sure, you can sell a treatment. The question is where does the money go? Answer: Not much your way. I don't have direct experience with this on the scripted side of things, but re non-scripted TV, networks pay anywhere from $10-25K for series concepts. That may seem like a decent amount of money, but if the thing actually goes to series, you're looking at an overall budget of anywhere from $2-10M. I would think you'd be looking at a similar, if not greater disparity on the feature film side.

… my instinct would be to do the work and write a spec script -- to maximize the possible financial benefit and give yourself - and your story concept - the most protection.

Marylin Horowitz, New York based producer-writer and script coach:

My personal opinion is that a great idea is so rare that when there is one, and it's communicated clearly, a deal is made. As to the form it is sold in, it varies from situation to situation. Someone always seems to be winning "script lotto," and someone's nepotist bad idea story is also always getting made. Bill Goldman said something to the effect regarding Hollywood that "Nobody knows anything."

So the opinions from inside the industry seem to suggest that pitches do get bought from time to time, but there are a number of qualifications:

  • The idea has to be exceptionally good.
  • It doesn’t happen very often.
  • Almost only established and represented screenwriters sell pitches.
  • The price paid for a pitch is a fraction of what is paid for a script.
  • Selling a treatment is more feasible and safer in terms of copyright.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out. I’m still brainstorming pitches as well as working on a spec script, and at some point soon I plan to approach the market with a small collection of my best pitches. Because one thing seems clear to me above all else in this context: It’s worth a try.

I’ll keep you posted on developments!