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The witty brunette of "Legally Blonde'

Do you have the next big story to tell - one that will have them rolling in the aisles, riveted to their seats or reaching for a Kleenex?

Before you pack your bags for Hollywood, you might want to head over to the Clearwater Main Library.

At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Hollywood screenwriter Kirsten Smith will present a question-and-answer session for aspiring screenwriters.

Smith's first big success came when she and her writing partner, Karen McCullah Lutz, sold the coming-of-age flick, 10 Things I Hate About You, as a speculative work to Disney.

Legally Blonde was their next megahit, a comedy about a ditzy but brainy sorority girl who goes to Harvard Law School. That was followed by Ella Enchanted in 2004, an irreverent adaptation of a children's book by the same name. Their latest collaboration, She's the Man, starring Amanda Bynes, is scheduled for release by DreamWorks on March 17.

The two are currently writing a 20th Century Fox remake of 9 to 5, though production hasn't begun.

In addition to discussing her career as a screenwriter, Smith will talk about her new book, The Geography of Girlhood, a novel-in-poems about a young girl traversing the sometimes smooth, sometimes jolting, passage from youth to adulthood.

During a phone interview from her Los Angeles home, Smith talked about her career and what she loves and hates - but mostly loves - about show biz.

First, forget that she's 35. Those are just trips around the sun, she says.

She is, she says, "perpetually 16" and plans to keep it that way. She is crazy for teen movies, watching as many as five in one day and calling it research.

Smith has found her niche in writing funny "fish out of water" stories that appeal to teens and young adults.

"I love stories about people who are happy and accepted in one world, then forced through the story to do something different," she said. "The reaction of this person not fitting in makes for some great comedy."

After graduating from Occidental College in Los Angeles, Smith planned to make a living being a poet. But after penning hundreds of pieces of poetry and having only a few published, she realized she needed work that was a bit beefier.

"I knew I wanted to be a writer, and then one day I fell in love with the idea of working in the movie business," she said. "I figured I could be a screenwriter by day and a poet by night."

She prefers adaptations over original screenplays, saying she can concentrate on the elements she enjoys: character development and snappy dialogue.

She met her writing partner when working for a small company called CineTel Films; there, Smith spent her days reading what she considered pretty cheesy movie scripts. But one writer caught her attention: Karen McCullah Lutz.

"Her writing was fun, breezy and addictive," Smith said. "I connected with her voice."

Smith telephoned Lutz, and eventually the two met.

It was an "epic night," Smith recalled, one filled with margaritas, bar hopping and scribbling notes on cocktail-soaked napkins. They scratched out the plot for a female action movie, "one that shall remain anonymous and in the drawer forever."

Though the love of that first plot line was fleeting, their friendship has lasted 10 years.

Their first successful venture was 10 Things I Hate About You. Released in 1999, it catapulted actors Julia Stiles and Heath Ledger to stardom.

Smith said she still keeps in touch with Stiles. She said Ledger is "immediately charming."

"He's both savvy and fun, and his "movie star quality' is readily apparent."

That movie was loosely based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, while their new movie, She's the Man, is based on the playwright's Twelfth Night. The lead character in the new film, Viola, disguises herself as a boy to play soccer at her twin brother's school. That, Smith says, makes for sexual confusion, mistaken identities and lots of comedy.

"We have a fun record of ripping off Shakespeare," Smith said. "He was brilliant with narrative and complex, twisty plot turns."

She says that when it comes to screenwriting, two heads are better than one.

"There's a lot of cracking up and joking, and that helps," she said. "It also comes in handy when you are pitching a story (for sale) and you can be as entertaining as possible."

She remembers having to create a "set piece" for Legally Blonde, an adaptation of a book by Amanda Brown. It would come to be known as the "bend and snap" and was used in a scene as a way to attract a man's attention. Basically, a woman bends over and then stands upright with her chest thrust out.

"We'd been trying to come up with things for weeks," Smith recalled. "We were sitting in a bar and suddenly I came up with this impulsive, spontaneous thing. I tried it at the bar."

So did people look?

"Yes, and I think some were a little frightened."

She said most scripts take several months to write. Then, after taking copious notes from producers, actors and directors, they rewrite several times.

Despite the success of Smith and Lutz, Smith knows rejection is around every corner. The two have written 19 scripts - some now gathering dust in a lonely closet.

But that's a good thing, she said.

"Writers shouldn't focus on one perfect script," she said. "They should write lots of scripts because the more you do, the better you become."

She also recommended subscribing to trade journals so you can "know the lingo, who the players are and how it works."

Smith says she is "legally brunette," but that still doesn't stop her from "spending far too much money on highlights, facials and handbags."

She loves working at home in her pajamas or a bathing suit. When not working, she spends time with her boyfriend, "who's as wacky" as she is, and her two Lab-pit bullterrier mixes, who love to go to the dog park.

"It's a good place to go if you're stressed out about a script you need to rewrite," she said. "And you can focus on life's more important issues, like, "Where's the pooper scooper?' "

THE SCREENWRITING LOVES

(AND HATES) OF KIRSTEN SMITH

1. Writing funny dialogue - only to have the producer tell you to rewrite it all.

2. Being taken out to nice dinners - then spending the whole time talking about work.

3. Writing "fish out of water" stories - then watching the fish die a slow death.

4. Working while sunbathing - you do need tough skin.

5. Watching five teen movies a day and calling it "research."

6. Landing a job - only to have them keep asking, "Where's the script?"

7. Getting to meet cute actors - then watching them kiss someone else on the set.

8. Seeing your efforts up on the big screen - and knowing the actors made millions.

9. Writing a great plot for a movie on cocktail napkins - only to realize you left them at the bar the night before.

10. And finally, inspiring young screenwriters - and there is nothing to hate about that.

Up next:OBITUARIES

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