Screenwriter Q & A: common questions answered
Here is a compilation of questions I was asked by screenwriters on varying topics a few years back and my advice still holds firm — some helpful screenwriting tips that I’ve learned over the years and I hope this information can help you…
Questions Below (links removed):
- What is the criteria for script contests?
- How long should I wait to submit my work to the industry?
- Getting the read
- How long will it take me to break through?
- What do you look for in a story?
- Art Films vs. Popcorn Movies
- A contact wants a “cut” to pass on my script, should I do it?
- To a writer worried about their idea being stolen…
- I know I’m shooting my script as an indie feature, do I need your services?
- Is it a big Hollywood movie or a TV spec sample?
WHAT IS THE CRITERIA FOR SCRIPT CONTESTS?
What is the criteria for judging scripts in script contests? If you don’t place in one does that mean odds are you won’t place in another? Is it possible for a good script to not place simply because it wasn’t what they were looking for?
I entered my script into the San Diego Script Competition and found out yesterday I wasn’t even a finalist. I was pretty disappointed and it got me thinking that my script isn’t as good as I thought. I am still waiting to hear from another contest but, I can’t get it out of my head that it is hopeless…
I won’t ever give up and have already begun redrafting, but man did that hurt. Can you offer some insight into to how the whole script contest thing works?
Thank you from a newbie!
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a great opening 10 pages. From there have a great first 30. From there keep ’em hooked and keep it moving. You get the idea. Come right out of the box with both guns blazing and establish that main line of action as quickly as possible.
If this script is a slow, talky Drama, then maybe it’s not a contest winner and you should submit your Thriller. Remember, each judge in a contest is no doubt sifting through a hug pile of scripts and doesn’t have much time. Every contest is going to be different, and unfortunately some employ readers without much script analysis or industry experience, so I can’t say anything about the ‘profile’ of a specific contest. All I can do is tell you my experience…
I recently was a judge in a contest. I was sent 25 scripts in a big box and told to send back the top 3. Very little pay. I
was tired, cranky, didn’t want to read ’em, wished the top 3 could just leap out of the box and read themselves. But I had to do it. And I sympathized with the writers who put so much time into all these scripts so I didn’t want to shortchange them. But, practically, I just could not read every single word of all 25 scripts.
So I dived in, set on reading them as QUICKLY as possible, with the major rule that when they lost me they lost me…I’d put the script down and move on to the next. My hard-and-fast cutoff was page 30 — if an engaging throughline or fascinating main character was not established by 30: the dustbin it went.
As I went I realized I wouldn’t even have time to read the first 30 pages of all 25 scripts, and I’d already run into a few with format problems or basic story issues that obviously set them apart as beginner work…so I knew they were going to be cut anyway. So I honed my criteria…
Format problems — give it 3 pages.
Clarity problems — give it 5 pages.
“Overdirecting” of visuals, camera cues — give it 10 pages.
No establishment of clear main character — give it 20 pages.
Cut-off for story to begin: page 30.
These “rules” allowed me to get through the stack and weed out the beginner work from the submission-worthy. And in the end it came down to two very strong scripts, both at about the same level of competency. I chose the one that I felt was more commercial, had more potential to sell in the industry, because personally I feel that contests can and should do more to launch quality commercial writers so we can raise the bar on even our popcorn films and we can encourage the industry to take contests (and by extension: unknown writers) more seriously.
I hope that helps give some insight into the process.
HOW LONG SHOULD I WAIT TO SUBMIT MY WORK TO THE INDUSTRY?
Thanks, I’m excited that my script has been a finalist in three competitions and I continue to work on my new one as per your last round of notes.
I haven’t submitted my scripts to any production companies or agents, just contests. I’d like to have 3 or 4 screenplays of this quality before I storm Hollywood. I really did take the advice on your website seriously, and I’ve been spending my time writing rather than marketing. I can’t control my luck, but I can control the quality of my writing. Does that sound like a good plan?
for the record, the general “best plan” for new screenwriters is to go out with 2 strong scripts. Having 3-5 would be great, but it could also add another 3 years to your wait — the wait for fame, fortune, Oscars and your own reality show with accompanying catch phrases.
But seriously…you want to pay attention to quality but you don’t want to hold yourself back trying to be a perfectionist. I know, I’ve done that myself, most writers do. Submitting is tough for everyone, it takes a lot to send it out, but it’s necessary. And when you’re getting good response, as you are now from multiple contests, you want to use that momentum and interest to feed submission. So I say get that contest-winner OUT THE DOOR! Start submitting and gauge the response.
good luck and I’ll talk to you soon! take care.
GETTING THE READ
Dan here, getting back to you. Just getting someone to take time out of their busy schedule, sit down and concentrate on your 100 pages is DIFFICULT. And most of the books and classes and seminars never mention this!
In fact, writers will always jump up and down because they met someone who knows Will Smith or they found the person who can pass their script on to Brian Grazer, but not realize that the next, even more difficult hurdle, is to get that script from the very bottom of the pile on Will or Brian’s assistant’s bookshelf on to the outgoing pile for the weekend read. Then of course there’s ten steps AFTER that initial read to the sale, but let’s focus on that first read.
We all know this, we’ve all been there — that point where our script has been in the agent/manager/d-girl’s office now for three months, and we’ve already called three times: first time we got them but they were on another call so we graciously let them go. Three weeks went by.
Second time we call back: voicemail. We leave a message; no response. A month goes by.
Third time we call back: get the intern/assistant, who checks to see if they’re “available” (i.e. puts us on hold, turns to their boss and says “it’s the unimportant screenwriter whose script you don’t want to read nor do you have time to read nor will you make time because there’s no heat on it”) and surprise: they’re busy and they’ll have to take a message! So we wait another month. No response.
Now, the bad news is that at that point it’s probably dead in that office; at least in my experience, if a script doesn’t go in with momentum and get read in a reasonable amount of time, it’s probably just not going to happen there. Or it’s entirely possible that someone has scanned the first few pages and decided to throw it aside for another month, but of course they’re not going to tell you that. So anyway, point is, and I sympathize with every one here on this because I’ve been there, also: it’s a chore just to get someone to read the damn thing. And like Mark said, unless you’ve got Will Smith attached, you’re probably limited to those few devices to create that heat and suck them in so they sit down and give you a chance: logline, cover letter, and free sex, er, I mean, a great opening scene! So make those things GREAT.
And then M you went off on your “there’s no such thing as a greatscript” rant, and I can see what you’re saying (even a great script must have good timing and a lot of hard work and tenacity and networking and serendipity behind it) but I can’t totally agree.
Well…I can agree but in a different way — the extra PUSH that it takes to get any script over that wall and to get that paycheck, lies in the WRITER. And not all writers are cut out for it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t ONLY take the talent on the page, it also takes the confidence, endurance, and willingness to put in the time and drive past the rejection to push that script and keep pushing until The Writer finds the right Producer and gets the Producer to actually read
it. And that can and does take years. I know of one writer, a client and friend of mine, who has the talent but is insecure, listens to every note he gets from anyone and doesn’t have the endurance to keep pushing. So his script that has great moments and could be totally great if he really just focused for one strong rewrite, sits, and he stays at his day job. Actually I think he’s unemployed now, got laid off from his day job. It’s tough.
Don’t mean to depress you, I know you’re already down because you haven’t heard anything back about your submission, but I just wanted you to know that the process is tough for everyone and you just gotta hang in there. And most importantly, learn from the lessons this time around so your next submission is that much stronger and gains a faster turnaround. Good luck!
HOW LONG WILL IT TAKE ME TO BREAK THROUGH?
nice to hear from you, here’s some responses to your questions…
I know this business is extremely tough to succeed at so I want to be a realist yet an optimist. However, I don’t want to be the “American Idol” contestant who shows up every year trying to get on the show, thinking he sings well enough to compete and constantly being rejected by judges who say, “Doesn’t he realize he CAN’T sing?”
So you want to be Bo Bice, not Scott Savol? Or maybe Justin Guarini is more your speed? Ha haaaa…American Idol references are fun (Ed. note: and they become dated very fast! Groan.). But seriously, I know what you mean, it’s a practical consideration, and I’m on the same page as I think about your questions…
In your opinion, what would you say are realistic expectations for a writer without the formal training (like you have, for example) to at minimum, be able to write a “clean” script (all the technical aspects look good) and at least be competitive in various writing contests?
To write a clean script that reads professional and impresses a Reader: very realistic. Do well in contests: very realistic. It will just take a couple more scripts and a lot of practice, but you can get there. But to get the “Consider” or “Recommend” coverage and get meetings/options/sales, that’s a whole level that’s going to take a lot of dedication and *maybe* some more training (I say maybe because I’d like to think that with many hours of self-study, practice, and using smart friends or pro consultants like me to give you notes, you can substitute for the three years in the UCLA screenwriting program).
I’d like to think you can do it on your own — e.g., my greatest training was being forced to read and analyze so many stories and over time this developed my story sense and detailed eye; I did this on the Job as a paid Reader. But you could do it on your own, if you are motivated enough. And then, with the aid of consultants, writers’ groups, peer review websites (I’ll suggest a great one below), and a supportive family and friend base, you can do it!
As you know from your background in media/video/interactive, creative people only need to be GOOD, they don’t need incredible degrees and awards. It’s all about the portfolio; in this case, your spec sample. If someone has an amazing portfolio, does it matter if they went to Yale or Smallville Community College? Hollywood doesn’t care, in fact I recently read an interview with big-time pro Leslie Dixon (Mrs. Doubtfire, Thomas Crown Affair) who said “No one cares about your education. No one.” So there ya go!
Based upon just one script of mine that you’ve read, if I write on a regular basis, how many scripts do I need to hone my skills and get to a point where the questions become more “Is this marketable?” vs. “interesting concept but poorly written script.”
I’d say 2-3 scripts more before you really get the hang of it and start conceiving (in your outline, before you write scenes) and writing (the actual execution) an active, cinematic, dramatically unique story. But to get an option or sale…it’s totally up to the individual. Some say it takes minimum 12 scripts and I think that’s bunk; I think that’s for writers who ONLY write, in a vacuum, without feedback, books, seminars, etc. And that notion also got started years ago, before so many books, classes, and the internet.
When you write a script, what framework do you use to make sure that all the pieces, from a technical standpoint, fit into place?
I always use my Story Map method and outline structure, for ANY genre, it applies to pretty much every film I analyze. As far as I can tell, from years of doing this, it’s infallible. Don’t mean to exaggerate, I really think it’s great! I love it and I’ve recently added to it, developed it further. Now, I will admit I’ve recently seen a few films that did NOT adhere to the Story Map, but that’s because they were foreign art films in an International Film Festival. The lesson being: If you want to make foreign art films for festivals, you do not need the Story Map. I think it was Aristotle who first said that. 😉
Just this past year, I’ve added an extra edge that I believe other consultants and books don’t mention, but the pros (consciously or unconsciously) know and use. We’re going to be using it in my online classes.
Do you just write a first draft straight through, or are you constantly editing and thinking consciously about the technical aspects of your work? If the latter, how much does the technical “quantitative” thinking get in the way of the free flow of ideas and the “art” of your writing?
This can be a tough balance. In short, every writer needs to find the process that works best for them, but I personally believe in outlines and trust in my Story Map template. When to put down the Story Map and start writing actual script pages is up to the writer, but keep in mind that as you write it’s okay to make changes to the Map as you discover new things about your story and characters. In short, I’m a huge believer in outlines as it not only tells you if you have a strong, active story worthy of being developed, but it saves you tons of hours of editing later. I can look at just a beat sheet of major plot points and see story problems; with practice you can develop this eye, as well.
Thanks again. Look forward to your responses.
Thanks K, good luck and happy writing!
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR IN A STORY?
I enjoyed your thread in the forum on Sideways, Ray and Million Dollar Baby. Very insightful stuff. As a pro analyst, I am interested in what you look for in evaluating a story.
I should make the distinction now that reading and evaluating as a Reader for a company and as a Consultant for a private writer are two different animals. (fyi, I’m no longer a Studio Reader; I did it on and off for over 7 years and got as much out of it as I could. It’s not a steady job and not meant to make a career out of.) Working for a company I’m making an “employer-specific” recommendation, and giving notes to a private writer I’m giving them notes on how to improve the overall craft, presentation, and commercial aspects of the screenplay. The “employer-specific” means I’m trying to find material that’s right for the kinds of films this company wants to make and find. So for Miramax, I wasn’t looking for a buddy-cop movie necessarily or a gross-out teen movie as those weren’t genres they focused on. But actually, reading for Miramax was a great example of looking for potentially all genres, because at that time they were making all types of films. Definitely commercial stuff in many genres, not just the costume period dramas sometimes people associate them with.
From reading industry periodicals, it looks like there is a common thread within the industry and that appears to be that the studios are very concerned about their financials. The box office is not drawing the percentages it did a decade ago, even with an increased population and overseas box office.
My suggestion is you not focus so much on analyzing the studios’ financials — think of it simply as “they got the big bucks, you need the big bucks!” Seriously, that’s the bottom line (no pun intended). THEY are the financial wizards who figure out how to make a profit from giving stars $25 million and 20% of the gross, and it’s not your job to tell them about this process. Focus on your writing, and delivering to them a fresh, new, well-crafted story.
Hundreds of films are made every year, and someone is financing them and someone is making big salaries working for the companies that distribute them. So why not get into that industry and make some money yourself? But to do that you need to have something they NEED. And that’s a great high-concept script.
I assume you evaluate scripts and rate them as a Pass, Consider or Recommend?
If reading for a studio and doing “Coverage,” yes, but I don’t give that recommendation on notes for clients. I actually wrote an essay called Why I don’t write Coverage…
Do you evaluate all genres equally? And I ask specifically in the area of character. I understand how characters in a script like Sideways need a lot of depth. But, in a successful movie like Alien, the character descriptions and depth were very bare-bones by comparison.
Yes, over the years I’ve evaluated all genres, and I evaluate every script as its own film, it must be true unto itself.
E.g., some clients have written scripts that started out as family films, but then they threw in R-rated content like bad language, violence, and sex. And I would suggest they pick a side and keep it consistent, because a studio needs to be able to read it and know what KIND of film this is and who to market it to. Genre and audience must be clear and focused. And that’s just level one; beyond that you have structure and all the elements of screenplay form; then you have the icing on the cake with a great, unique “voice” on the page in your description and crisp fresh dialogue. There’s a lot to it, and that’s why it takes years of practice, and why reading everything you can get is a good idea, like you’re doing.
You know what’s interesting, I read the first draft of Alien and it wasn’t terrific. It seemed to violate all of the tenets that Screenwriting 101 says not to. But, someone saw a story there and the rest is history. My second question is if you see a good story within a script that may not be well executed, how do you rate it?
I’ll always try to find the best movie within the flawed script. I’ve read so many different executions, at every level of craft, that I feel I know what’s holding a story down early on. But another red flag to avoid is using *production drafts* as templates for submission scripts — the pros commonly write really long, drawn out shooting scripts (and also, Alien was written in the 70s, a bygone era for pacing by now). Shooting scripts by the pros are longer because they’re already established, because no actor wants to only get through two lines before the director calls “cut” every shot, and so they’ll have stuff to trim in the editing room (and these days, content for those lovely dvd “deleted scenes”). So production drafts are LONG, or they can be. But they’re different than Submission/Reader drafts. And the rub is, submission drafts can’t usually be found online. It’s frustrating.
To a pro Reader, their adage is “the shorter the better,” because coverage is normally a flat fee of payment to them. E.g., the 140 pg. script pays the same rate to the Reader for coverage as the 99 page script. After a long week and many scripts, which do you think they’d rather read?
As a follow-up question, why do you think the screenplays that get greenlit actually get greenlit? If Hollywood financials are indeed suffering and industry insiders acknowledge this, then surely the studio heads, creative execs, etc. see that as well. Yet, they seem to go down the same path.
Again, do what you can to educate yourself about the marketplace, but don’t worry too much about it or spend too much time on it. Write in the niche you like the most, feel the most passion for — make your own market because your scripts are that hot! Like Charlie Kaufman, he’s made himself his own genre, based on one script that blew people away, “Being John Malkovich.” But the safest thing you can do, the smartest, is master a strong, popular, commercially-proven genre. E.g., psychological thrillers may not be hot *today*, not as hot as horror or teen comedies, but the studios are always going to be looking for the next great psychological thriller — so if that’s YOUR genre of choice, write 2-3 great psychological thrillers.
ART FILMS VS. POPCORN MOVIES
From the thread it sounded like you don’t care too much for popcorn movies.
No, I don’t care for BAD popcorn movies, and my point was that the writers who write those movies, for the big paychecks, are generally smarter than the material. In discussions and meetings, they’re not just talking about Hillary Duff’s arc or if Britney Spears’ new album sold this week or not, they’re potentially talking about Sideways, the Oscar films, Jane Austen, Moby Dick, and William Goldman. You need to be well-rounded and interesting as a person, also. Which is not to say there aren’t introverted, shy, maybe a bit strange, successful writers, but it’s good to be interesting “in the room.” This is more key in TV, from what I understand, because you’re on a writing staff, but your career is dependent on relationships in Hollywood, and that means phone calls, meetings, social networking, etc. I’m not great with that end, either, doesn’t come naturally. But it’s part of the industry.
I doubt the artsy -type films would sustain studios, even indies, if the dollars don’t roll in. But, I feel they are a necessary balance to the tentpoles.
I agree, a balance is good, but with so many indies now coming out the studios don’t NEED to make as many small films; and they probably never will, again, no matter how much we gripe. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make a career out of more artsy, less high concept material. That big New Yorker article in 2005 that caused controversy and made Halle Berry dump her ICM agent addressed the second level of cache in Hollywood: the quality/artsy/awards factor. They will pay for that, even if it doesn’t translate to box-office. Because everyone wants the “bragging rights” of being associated with the literary award winner pics, not just the dumb exploitation movies. Perfect example, Charlie Kaufman makes big money even though he’s never had a really big hit film.
Do you think that mix should exist and, if so, should screenplay contests be more open to the popcorn scripts (well written, of course) vs. the human dramas that seem to always clean up?
I definitely think the contests should acknowledge more-so the popcorn films, if they’re well-written. And I think it’s possible that many inexperienced contest Readers think a long-winded, literary-reading script is the mark of quality, whereas we know that’s the kiss of death in a submission! But every contest is different and I don’t know the specifics of their staff.
good luck, talk to you soon…
A CONTACT WANTS A “CUT” TO PASS ON MY SCRIPT, SHOULD I DO IT?
I know you’re busy so I’ll get right to the point. I am a new writer with no background in the industry. I wrote a treatment for a TV series, registered it with WGA and then showed it to Mr. X, who is not in the entertainment business but knows a lot of people who are. Mr. X says it’s good and plans to pass it along to his friend The Producer. I can’t believe it – but that’s another story.
Anyway, Mr. X wants a “cut” if this goes anywhere, and told me to “work something out.” I don’t have a problem with the concept -heaven knows I need and value the connections, which I have none of myself – but I can’t find, anywhere, what an appropriate “cut” for making the introduction might be. Can you give me some guidance, or tell me where to find information?
Thank you for any glimmer of light you can send my way –
my personal advice would be to offer your friend not a percentage but merely a “finder’s fee,” at a flat rate, if the producer does in fact facilitate a sale or buy the script him/herself. And keep it low, say $200-500 — if your friend balks at that, tell them it’s 500 bucks for free, hardly any work on their part and they should feel lucky to get it. After all, it’s your quality writing that will make the sale, not their amazing personality and connections (trust me, no one but a-list people have the kind of rep that can get bad work sold). AND if the script does sell, that only boosts their rep as having connections to quality writers, so it’s a feather in their cap, too (and if they didn’t think it could be, they wouldn’t offer to pass on your script).
If they want a percentage, tell them you’re already going to have to pay half to the taxman, 10% to your agent and 5% to a lawyer, leaving not much for yourself so they should get over themselves, admit they’re not Ari Emmanuel, and take the finder’s fee!
Sound good? That’s my two cents, and I’m not an agent, lawyer or producer so take it for what it’s worth. 🙂 good luck.
TO A WRITER WORRIED ABOUT THEIR IDEA BEING STOLEN…
You seem concerned so I felt I should give some of my personal thoughts on the issue of your ideas being taken.
Here’s the two main reasons why I suggest you don’t worry…
1) That worry can hold you back from ever showing it to anyone and thus you’ll hold back your career. Many a lucky break has been made because a writer was willing to pass their work on to people they weren’t sure could ever help them and that person knew someone who knew someone. For example, the Farrelly Brothers say they got their first break because they met Eddie Murphy’s neighbor; they gave their script to this guy and he gave it to Eddie Murphy one day when he came out to get his morning paper in his bathrobe and slippers! Some months later Murphy’s people called the Farrelly brothers and they were launched.
2) The odds of someone not only taking an idea fragment (or even a finished script) but then also writing an entire script from that concept or rewriting the stolen script enough to make it unrecognizable AND that script being good enough to sell…are very slim. Because this is a lot of work and a lot of commitment of time and they don’t have your specific vision for the idea and people would rather develop their own ideas and they wouldn’t have time to put into it anyway. So it’s a longshot and I don’t think it happens much. IMHO. Make sense?
So don’t worry! Thanks and good luck,
I KNOW I’M SHOOTING MY SCRIPT AS AN INDIE FEATURE, DO I NEED YOUR SERVICES?
I won’t be going the traditional route of submitting my screenplay as a spec script on the market. I am going to produce and direct it as an indie feature film. I obviously don’t need a commercial assessment. Can I still benefit from your services? Thanks, L.
Thank you for contacting me, sounds like you have an exciting project you’re developing. I think the main thing you’re looking for is what I do, which is…
Story notes. By analyzing the story and giving notes on how to improve structure, character, dialogue, conflict, pacing, voice, tone, format, and all the other major and minor elements, I am helping a client to improve their script so it’s a better read for the Reader, which makes it…
a) a stronger STORY on the page that creates a stronger FILM on screen and in the mind of the Reader, and also…
b) a stronger SUBMISSION to professionals (agent/manager/producer/studio exec.)
Now you’re saying you won’t need b, which is fine and I’ve definitely had clients in your position. But “a” is 90% of my analysis, because it all goes toward creating “b”: the great spec script submission. But if your goal is to improve your screenplay so it makes a stronger film you have come to the right place. As you know, you can’t make a film on your own, so you’re going to want your script to be as good as it can be to attract top talent and crew.
I have worked with filmmakers a number of times in the past on drafts that they had thought were almost production-ready, but my notes gave them new perspectives that can only come from objective analysis, and this ultimately affected change in their final shooting scripts. It was nice to work with them, for their knowledge of the film production process but also especially because of their passion.
Thank you very much and I’ll talk to you soon!
IS IT A BIG HOLLYWOOD MOVIE or a TV SPEC SAMPLE?
I’m finishing up the handnotes today and I’ll drop this off at a fedex drop by end of day. I really liked it; it really flows and you’ve got a strong sense of structure and pace. Characterization is great. Your writing skill and style is really coming along, based on the first scripts of yours I read.
As a Reader I do have some concerns, and that’s what you pay me for so here’s the main issues…
I like all the situations and they’re obviously truthful and well written and interesting, but you also have the problem of them being somewhat familiar to the television medical genre (E.R., Grey’s Anatomy, etc.) — we’ve seen the young surgeon screwing up and falling asleep on the job, struggling with the young wife, affairs with nurses in the supplies closet, etc. But yet TV will continue to turn out medical shows as they have for the past decades, so this script would
probably be fantastic as a writing sample for episodic TV. Please consider pitching this as a writing sample to agents and prod. co’s due to the strong writing but lack of a huge high-concept. The realistic portrayal of the hazing process at the country’s toughest intern hospital is a high concept in essence but it’s not necessarily a “big Hollywood movie” (BHM as I’ve heard it abbreviated, which is annoying but there you go). At least it’s not a BHM until you get some major talent attached, then the tables turn.
If I were writing coverage for Miramax, I would definitely note in the report that “this author has strong skills, character best and plotting second; he should be considered for future work.” But ultimately, my final grade on the script would be a Pass due to the over-worn medical genre and that there’s so much of this on TV that I wouldn’t think audiences would pay at a theatre to see it on screen. The same goes for when I would read police procedural feature scripts. Which is not to say I’m the great box-office predictor, but I always felt it was my job to find the story that hadn’t been told. And if it was an overly familiar story with strong writing then I’d make sure to note that clearly in the coverage, so ultimately I’d hope it would benefit the writer and get them a meeting or at least a phone call and a new contact.
I know this may not be the ideal thing you wanted to hear, but as you know my style is to be direct and honest and since you’re paying me good money, I owe you no less!
Thanks again F and good luck! Thanks for the script, I enjoyed it and there’s many notes on the way.
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