For over two years, Christina Hamlett, author of Screenwriting for Teens, has been sharing her monthly mirth with us and helping us to be better writers.
Her monthly column in School Video News is one of the most-read features in the eMag providing teachers and students with entertaining and informative writing exercises. With over 149 published plays for teens and 5 optioned films, we thought you might like to know a little more about Christina Hamlett.
Kalie Ramos, an avid follower and disciple of Ms. Hamlett had the opportunity to sit down with her (and Lucy) for this in-depth interview.
Kalie Ramos: What made you start screenwriting?
Christina Hamlett: Of all the different types of writing I do – novels, plays, nonfiction, how-to articles, interviews and magazine/newspaper feature stories – screenwriting was actually the most recent to be added to my skill set. It all came about when a friend of mine in the film industry asked me a while back if I’d be interested in reading some of her backlog of scripts and telling her what I thought. Although she knew that my area of expertise lay in writing for live theater, the fact that playwriting focuses so heavily on dialogue, character development and economy of staging had cross-over value to analyzing whether a film project cohesively held together as a marketable story. In order to provide useful commentary on each screenplay’s strengths and weaknesses, I not only started reading books on the subject but also downloaded squillions of free scripts off the Internet to study their structure, formatting, pacing, etc. In concert with this was my longstanding interest in the adaptation process; specifically, why it was that certain novels could make a seamless transition to the silver screen while others failed miserably. It was only a (short) matter of time before I decided to branch out and give screenwriting a try myself.
KR: How do you take criticism? (and not constructive, but purely negative criticism)
CH: First and foremost, I always consider the source. Does the critic, for instance, have the credentials and professional background to validate his/her opinion? Is there something else going on that’s unrelated to me personally but is fueling the nasty snark? (I once had an agent lambaste a query letter and chapter sample for no apparent reason…except for the fact that my heroine’s name was Suzanne, the same name as his wife who had left him just three days previous to run off to Mexico with his best friend. Hello? How was I supposed to know this?) Negative criticism can also be a power trip and little more than the product of someone insecure that just likes to hurt other people’s feelings. I think you have to consider how much control this individual exerts over your life as well as how much contact you’ll have with him or her in the future. If it’s a total stranger and a one-time event, ignoring it is a better course than engaging in any arguments.
KR: What advice do you have for people, especially teenagers, who want to quit after only having been at it for awhile?
CH: I always ask them how important the dream is to them and whether they’re doing it for themselves or for someone else. When I was a sophomore in high school, for instance, I got frustrated after only three days of learning shorthand because I couldn’t take dictation as fast as people talked. My teacher patiently pointed out that it took weeks - and months - of constant practice in order to build up speed. By the time the semester was over, I was taking dictation at 130 words per minute (the average person speaks between 125-150 wpm) and the following semester was asked to be her assistant and encourage new students to “stick with it.”
When I teach screenwriting workshops to teenagers as well as adults, a lot of them come up and tell me that they’re ready to throw in the towel because they haven’t sold a single script yet and, thus, feel like failures. It often turns out that they’ve only written one thing, sent it out to half a dozen people and then decided they simply can’t handle all that rejection. Well, who’s to say that the 7th person wouldn’t have loved it or that writing an entirely different plot wouldn’t better showcase their talents for storytelling? You need to get as much feedback as you can, listen to what people are telling you about what could make it better, and try, try again. It also helps to remember Thomas Edison’s paraphrased words about his most famous invention: “I didn't fail. I found 2,000 ways how not to make a light bulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.”
KR: How long did it take for you to get where you are today?
CH: I started in my late teens writing a movie column for the local newspaper. I won’t say how long ago that was but I will point out that there’s a portrait of myself up in the attic that has gotten quite old and hideous looking over the decades while I remain blissfully youthful…
KR: Who is your support system?
CH: My husband (who is also an excellent writer, editor and proofreader) is not only my brainstorming partner but we also read all of my new scripts together out loud at the dining room table. Since we have both spent time on stage (I was in theater; he was in opera), we’re adept at splitting up the roles and doing a wide range of accents. I’m sure that on the occasions when a window is open and our readings are particularly boisterous, our neighbors must wonder exactly how many people are living with us.
KR: How supportive are they?
CH: I couldn’t do any of this without him. Well, all right. Maybe I could but it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun. Writing is a solitary craft and you really need someone to share it with in order to know if it all works.
KR: What makes it worthwhile?
CH: I love hearing when someone tells me that they read one of my books until 3 in the morning because they couldn’t put it down. I also love hearing when a student or client thanks me for supplying a missing piece of the wordsmithing puzzle that they had been struggling to resolve. What’s the most rewarding, though, are the emails I get from aspiring writers who tell me that they have just sold their very first short story, novel, script, etc. I know exactly how they feel.
KR: How did you learn how to properly format all of your scripts, and what advice do you have for students who can't access that help publicly?
CH: I learned everything I needed to know about script formatting by reading books as well as downloading sample screenplays. As for accessing that content publicly, it’s actually all available on the Internet these days. Just type “screenplay formatting” into your browser and you’ll find all manner of websites that will walk you through the basics. For those that prefer the one-on-one attention and feedback of an instructor, yours truly teaches online classes in screenwriting, playwriting and how to write a TV series. Homework assignments are submitted via email and students are invited to ask as many questions as they’d like as they work to complete their first projects.
KR: What keeps you going?
CH: I simply love what I do and can’t imagine any other way to spend my time. I also work in such a diverse spectrum of fiction and nonfiction that there is literally never a dull moment when I don’t have something coming due, something to research or new characters to bring to life. In addition, that diversity keeps me from succumbing to writer’s block; whenever I discover that I have written myself into a mental cul-de-sac, I can always switch over and write about something different until my wits return.
Kalie Ramos is a high school student from small-town central-Texas with an interest in all things... everything! An avid dancer and artist, she got interested in film when she auditioned for One Act Play, of all things. Now she watches every movie in sight, and tries to follow her dreams, no matter where they take her.
She discovered Christina Hamlett through WOW, Women on Writing. After a few emails exchanged, they quickly found out that Kalie was a quick study and eager to learn, and Christina was delighted.
Kalie plans on spending her summer soaking up rays and making way in the path of film, all the while keeping up with her college classes.