Elizabeth Ditty describes herself as a writer born, raised and based in Kansas City with two kiddos and a day job. She loves to travel even though she doesn’t get to as often as she’d like in this phase of life. Over the past year, her hobbies include mixing cocktails, brushing up on her French with Duolingo, and learning to play the piano.
“The life philosophy I try and often fail to live up to is: Don’t hurt yourself. Don’t hurt others. Beyond that, whatever works”, she adds.
A writer of screenplays, short stories, prose and poetry, Elizabeth tells us that screenwriting is the format where she sees most of her ideas. Although, she enjoys the freedom to dip into other formats. As a screenwriter, she has been an Austin Film Festival semifinalist and three-time second rounder, and part of the 2020 Bitch List.
In this interview, part of a series, the screenwriter talks about writing, career, and current projects.
What are you currently working on? Tell us more about it.
I’ve currently got a few projects I’m working on, all on spec for now. I’m finishing up edits on a couple of features, one a Netflix-and-chill-style romantic comedy and the other a mockumentary coming-of-age comedy about a high school orchestra.
Additionally, I’m working on the series bible for an adaptation of an Agatha Christie novel called THE MAN IN THE BROWN SUIT. I’ve written the pilot and a first draft of the second episode, and I’ve got rough outlines of the remaining four episodes. Right now, it’s set up as a limited series that covers the whole of the book, but there’s plenty of potential to take the characters on further original adventures in subsequent seasons as well.
When I first read the book last year (after it entered the U.S. public domain in 2020), I was immediately struck by how modern and hilarious the female protagonist was, even though the novel takes place in 1922. She immediately came right off the page for me.
It’s the sort of story that never goes out of style, but spending time writing a woman with a truly indomitable spirit who goes on this fantastic murder-mystery-thriller-romantic-comedy adventure starting in London, continuing across the sea on a cruise ship, and traversing multiple cities in the south of Africa felt especially wonderful after spending a year stuck at home. For me, it’s got the nostalgia of CHARADE and ROMANCING THE STONE with the fresh perspective of a woman who simply goes after what she wants because she wants it and to hell with the expectations society has put on her.
You also write poetry and prose and have been featured in various literary magazines. Do you have a favorite genre of writing?
Screenwriting is the format where I see most of my ideas. But it’s so great to have the freedom to dip into other formats. I’m a huge fan of National Novel Writing Month, and while I’ve never pursued publishing (or even editing) a novel I’ve written, just the exhilaration of writing 50,000 (or more) words in a single month has the ability to remind us what we’re capable of. Some of those ideas did eventually become screenplays, but even the ones that didn’t were absolutely worth the time and effort.
I also love children’s writing too. I had a series of children’s stories published in an app for a few years, which was a wonderful experience. I had the rights reverted to me last year, so I’ve thought about expanding or condensing them and seeing if they can find a second life somewhere. I’ve got another children’s picture book story written, about a girl trying to find the fairytale in which she belongs, and I’d love to find a publisher for it some day.
Beyond the children’s stories, most of what I’ve had published are creative nonfiction pieces, along with a few flash fiction stories and poems. Sometimes I have an overwhelming need to get a complex emotion out of my head, and CNF and poetry have been the best places to do that, because there are no rules. Other times, there’s just a spark of an idea, a vignette that stands on its own, and flash or short fiction is a great place to see how much story you can pack into a small space — which just so happens to be great practice for screenwriting.
What originally attracted you to screenwriting?
I actually wrote my first screenplay in my 20s as part of NaNoWriMo’s now-retired sister event, ScriptFrenzy. It was extremely melodramatic and absolutely terrible, and I had the BEST time writing it! A few years ago, I also discovered some handwritten script pages I’d written in high school. It was nothing more than a meet-cute, and a cliché one at that, but obviously something sparked my imagination back then for a bit.
I was a big reader growing up, but like many children of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I also watched a ton of TV and movies. As a kid, I spent probably too much time kind of writing fanfiction scenes in my head. So, in some ways, I suppose it was only natural that I eventually caught the screenwriting bug since I was always creating these little movies and episodes in my head.
What’s a typical work week like?
I make an attempt to get up around 4:30 a.m. a few times a week so I can get in a little reading or sometimes even editing before I start my day job at 6 a.m. In the afternoons, I’m typically helping the kids or taking care of household tasks. After they’re in bed, I usually settle in to try and get some work done. During the week, it’s a lot of Sisyphys just trying to move the boulder an inch or two. On the weekends, I usually get longer stretches of time to do deeper work. In non-pandemic times, I try to escape to a coffee shop where I can work with far fewer interruptions at least once a week. Not being able to do that for the past year has been challenging, but it’s been an exercise in learning to get work done anyway.
What writers have influenced you and why?
Victor Hugo, Oscar Wilde and Neil Gaiman have all been huge influences in different ways. I read Notre Dame de Paris and Les Misérables as a young teen, and they had a profound effect on my worldview. I found Oscar Wilde in my late 20s and once again had my mind blown and paradigm reshaped — by The Picture of Dorian Gray in particular. I discovered Neil Gaiman around the same time, and it was such a joy and a revelation to see how one writer could do so many different things, with character, with story, and even across different media.
In more recent years, in the screenwriting world, Taika Waititi and Greta Gerwig both write in a way that marries these beautiful themes and gorgeous, layered, imperfect human characters into works that have really spoken to me. Taika is sneaky about it, because he puts a layer of absurd frosting on top of it all, so you’re having a good laugh and then all of a sudden find yourself sobbing. (JOJO RABBIT left me a mess in the theatre all through the credits, to the point that it got a bit awkward with the cleaning staff while I was trying to pull myself together.) And Greta writes stories that have such a wonderful, unapologetically feminine strength to them, which is something I strive to do in my own work. LITTLE WOMEN was so refreshing in so many ways, and I saw my own psyche on screen in a way I’d maybe forgotten was possible.
What makes a great story?
Oh, this is a tough question, because it’s all so subjective. For me, the stories I’ve loved most over the years have worn their hearts on their sleeves. It’s the ones that say something both honest and hopeful about the human condition that stick with me for the long haul.
Do you have any writing rituals?
I’m not big on rituals during this phase of my writing life, mostly because I’m always just trying to shoehorn in my writing wherever I can.
Do you have any tips on how to overcome writer’s block?
It depends on what kind of writer’s block you’re dealing with.
If you’re in the middle of Act 2 and you hate what you’re writing, then I’d say you’re right on track and recommend you keep muscling through because you can’t fix what doesn’t exist.
On the other hand, I’ve occasionally hit walls that are there because I discover I’m not quite yet the writer I need to be to write the script I’m trying to write. Whether that’s because I’ve got emotional work to do or craft work to do, sometimes it’s a matter of saying, “Not yet, but we’ll meet again.”
Now, if you’re dealing with the writer’s block that comes with burnout, then you might really benefit from taking a break. That might look like taking a weekend off to binge-watch some shows guilt-free or read a real, actual novel. Or it might look like taking a week (or even a month) off to just take some pressure off yourself for once.
What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in screenwriting?
I would say, ask yourself, “Are you sure?” Ha! I have yet to make screenwriting my career, if you define “career” as “a thing you get paid to do.” But let me point out that “an interest in pursuing a career in screenwriting” is very different than “an interest in screenwriting.”
So, if you’re interested in screenwriting and have a story you think would be fun to write in that medium, then go for it! Enjoy yourself! Have a blast!
If you do that a time or two and love it and want to pursue a career doing that rather than just enjoying it as a personal creative endeavor (which is totally valid and OK, by the way!), then you’ve got two main subjects to learn: craft and business.
I spent a lot of years learning craft with absolutely no clue about the business side. That’s been a shift in perspective and focus for me the past couple of years. I like to think I’ll forever be developing my craft, but my advice to those wanting to pursue a career is that you do need to learn the business side too.
Who you are as a writer and how did your career experiences help shape you and make you the kind of writer you are and will be?
I’ll give you my quick self-pitch as an answer. I grew up on Disney and Days of Our Lives, which has led me to write stories across genres about people facing the dissonance between what they expect their lives to be and what their lives are actually becoming. Additionally, my stories almost always include an element of romance mostly because my brain immediately searches for a couple to ship in anything I’m writing, reading or watching.
What are the struggles in the industry for a female screenwriter? Is it still a “boy’s club”?
I mean, the statistics speak for themselves. Things are trending in the right direction, but that trend seems a lot slower than many of us would prefer, especially for women of color. When the gatekeepers look more like an accurate cross-section of the population, I think progress will speed up exponentially. We have the stories. We just need the people in charge to believe that they’re valid (because they are) and will be lucrative (because they will be).
From a story perspective, I think there’s still a paradigm that a “strong female lead” needs to act like a man, and as much as I love seeing a kick-ass woman knocking people around, I find myself really craving stories where women are allowed to be strong in ways that are inherently feminine. And I’ll go a step further and say I love when men are allowed to access that feminine strength too. Kristoff in FROZEN 2 is a fantastic example of a man who’s allowed to take on a supportive, caring role instead forcibly taking over the hero role.
Those themes are something I’ve really tried to lean into in my projects, and explicitly so in a feature adaptation of Dracula I’ve written called HARKER. The lens of the story is given to Mina, and while she is unquestionably the hero of the story, she’s a Victorian woman whose power lies in her discernment, her loyalty, her willingness to sacrifice for the greater good, and her ardent love for her husband. She’s not out there staking vampires herself, but she is doing the most significant portion of the labor that makes it possible for the goal to be achieved.
Like so many women today, she’s working hard behind the action to find, create and provide the tools to achieve the goal. The difference in HARKER is that she’s celebrated for it — she gets the glory in the end. I’m not sure as a society we’re quite there yet, but my hope is that the more we get stories like FROZEN 2 — or HARKER — the more women will be rewarded in everyday life for the hidden labor we’re constantly performing for others.
Of all the things that you’ve done, is there one that you’re really proud of the most?
Are we talking writing or life here? Ha.
Outside of writing, I did grow two humans and sustain them with my own body for a significant period of time, and I’d say that’s a fairly solid achievement.
With writing, honestly, if you’ve ever sat down to write and kept sitting down to write until you finished a story or a novel or a screenplay or anything, then you should absolutely be proud. And the same goes for any creative endeavor, for the record. I’m proud I’ve been doing that routinely for more than a decade, for little more than love of the craft and the pursuit of putting into the world stories where people can find joy and hope.
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