Archive for October 2008

I Am the Master Chief of My Domain

October 29, 2008

So much for the quickie rewrite.

I’m currently stuck in the middle of the second draft of my Domestic Comedy. No, that’s not right.  Truth is, I’d like nothing more than to be stuck in the middle of it; I’m actually bogged down at the beginning. And I’m talking the beginning-beginning — I’m less than ten pages in and I feel like somebody’s dropped me in the middle of the Congo with nothing more than a bread knife to hack my way through the jungle.

At times like this, distractions are everywhere. My house seems to come alive as I sit there at my computer, fidgeting and wishing my daily quota of pages was done already — I can hear our DVD collection beckoning, our CD spinner whispering sweet nothings in my ear, my shelf of unread books whistling my way and asking if I want a date.

And then there’s the Xbox.

Lately, the console is sounding like that loudmouth jerk who hawks Oxyclean and Kaboom on TV: “COME PLAY ME!  THE SCRIPT CAN WAIT! YOU WILL OBEY!!!”  Increasing the temptation is the brand new copy of HALO 2 that I bought on a whim at Fry’s a few weeks ago. 

Here’s the thing — when I’m in the zone and a script is clicking, nothing can keep me from writing.  I’ll write anytime, anywhere.  (This can make driving a little challenging and occasionally death-defying, but hey, sometimes the Muse takes precedence over traffic laws and common sense.)  But when I’m blocked, I find myself drawn to other people’s stories.  I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t read a long work of fiction while making my way through a difficult first draft; if I do, I usually have a better chance of finishing the LA Marathon in flip-flops than I do of finishing my own draft.  And now that I’m a born again gaming geek, I’ve recently discovered that if I’m playing a story-driven game such as, oh, say, the original HALO or BIOSHOCK, there’s no way in hell any work is getting done.  (Unless the Missus cracks the whip and guilts me into getting my ass in gear.)  I know that I need to focus, to concentrate all of my energy and attention on my own tale.

Consequently, I refuse to let myself open HALO 2 until I finish the second draft of the Domestic Comedy.

And now, naturally, as I struggle with my script, I can’t stop thinking about HALO 2.

Sad, right?  What’s even sadder is that I’m actually trying to bargain with myself now.  It’s gotten to the point that I’ll ask the Missus if it would be okay for me to play ten minutes of the game as long as I get my quota of pages done.  Her answer is always the same: “Is the script done?  Then the answer is no.  Now get back to work, asshole.”  (Okay, she doesn’t actually call me an asshole.  It’s certainly  implied, though.)

This inner struggle is not necessarily due to the fact that I’m dying to play a five-year-old video game — though I am, of  course.  It’s just that by denying myself this minor pleasure, I can’t help but focus on it.  ( What can I say, I was raised Catholic.)  But if I give in, then I’ve lost this battle of wills with myself.  I’m starting to feel like I’m in my own one man version of the legendary masturbation episode of SEINFELD.  And I must remain the master of my domain.  The Covenant and the Flood can wait.

Maybe.

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The Better Half Speaks

October 25, 2008

This is great — I have a blog that I don’t even have to write for anymore!  Okay, maybe not, but as I deal with various issues on the writing and dadding fronts, the wife asked if she could contribute in my absence.  It turns out that she was only joking, but I made her do it anyway.  Take it away, honey…

Hello, it’s the Missus here. WriterDad has been too busy being a Dad and a writer to write about being a Dad and a writer, so I’m stepping in with a guest blog entry.

Of course, once I started writing this, WriterDad stepped in with suggestions. “Tell them about how becoming a dad changed my writing.” Or, “Write about how hard it is for me to find time to get anything done.” Well, WriterDad, that’s why you have a blog — so you can write about this stuff. 🙂 As for me, I’m no writer — my experience is limited to boring memos and captions for our various photo galleries of the Peanut. But today, I’ll be writing about this little star:

So, WriterDad and I are not the most outgoing people you’ll ever meet. You know those people who can just strike up a conversation anywhere they go? Yeah, that’s not us at all. But three and a half months ago, we were graced with the presence of our little rock star, who attracts attention wherever we go. As we left a fine dinner at Chili’s last night, we were stared at, smiled at, and even stopped by a random person, just to look at our little Peanut. It was enough to make the introvert in me want to drop my head and run screaming from the restaurant.

Everywhere we go, we hear comments about the cute baby. Even single young men, ones at an age when they’d rather be nailed to a wall and forced to watch an endless replay of Sex and the City than touch a baby, will smile in the presence of the Peanut. Older ladies have stopped us in the supermarket to look at our little one. Not that I blame them. Who can resist this?

Anyway, the Peanut loves the attention. She doesn’t pass up an opportunity to return a smile to a stranger (just ask the lady at the bar at Chili’s who had a good buzz going on and tickled the Peanut’s arm with her acrylic nails that were desperately in need of a fill). She’ll happily let anyone hold her. (And no, I’ve never let a stranger hold her. I’m not that crazy.)

It’s been challenging at times to have such a little social butterfly. Occasionally I feel a bit like I’m the baby’s entourage, while she’s out conquering the world. But I’m actually getting to a point where (with the exception of the occasional buzzed middle-aged woman in need of a manicure) I enjoy stopping to talk to people about the Peanut. I’m always amazed that people genuinely seem to want to meet her, or say hello to her. I mean, I think she’s the cutest baby in the world, but that doesn’t mean everyone else does, you know?

CHINESE DEMOCRACY = The PHANTOM MENACE of Rock & Roll?

October 23, 2008

(An open letter to Axl Rose)

Dear Axl,

I know it’s just the first single, but seriously, man– after 17 years, roughly one hundred zillion dollars’ worth of studio time and half the musicians in the free world joining and leaving the band, you cough up this?  I might have given you a pass if you put this out in 1995 (which is when I’m guessing you first recorded it) — at least then you’d sound like a hair metal guy desperately trying to keep up with grunge.  But in 2008?  Unacceptable.  This makes your atrocious mid-90s cover of “Sympathy For the Devil” sound like  “Stairway to Heaven.”

Nostalgia and the irresistible siren call of advertising might lure me into Best Buy on November 23, but I don’t know if I can actually commit to this new so-called GNR record.  If I DO shell out the $13.99 plus tax, I don’t know if I can get myself to pull off the shrink wrap and actually, you know, play it.  Maybe I’ll just put it in my CD collection and leave it be,  ’cause — let’s be honest — imagining a new GNR record is invariably going to be way more fun than actually listening to it.  The chase is always better than the catch.

And by the way, Axl — lose the corn rows.  We know you’re going bald.  We’ve known for a long time (since the time CHINESE DEMOCRACY was supposed to come out, actually).  Much like your slapping the name “Guns N’ Roses” on the album cover, you’re fooling no one with this.  Give it up.

Sincerely,

WriterDad

Replacing the Turd (or, A Story Breakthrough)

October 17, 2008

Tonight I had one of those moments that makes me so happy to be a writer.  As you might have read in yesterday’s post, I’ve been having trouble getting into the rewrite of the Domestic Comedy.  The script reads like I jammed it out in eleven days — which is only fair, since I DID jam it out in eleven days — but the haste in which it was written gives the rough draft a nice energy, a few scenes work pretty well and there are some nice moments that I came up with off the top of my head that I never even imagined during the plotting stage.  So there’s plenty to work with there in terms of raw material… or so I thought, until I actually tried to rewrite it.

After much headbanging (and not the fun kind), I zeroed in on my main problem: the third act is awful, centering around a would-be set piece that was intended to be a great trailer moment and instead just lies there like a giant, steaming turd.  But I had no idea what to replace the turd with.  For the better part of a week I’ve pondered this issue, to no avail.

Then, tonight, as I was sitting on the couch, bottle-feeding the Peanut in my lap with my left hand while attempting to scribble brainstorming notes onto a pad with my right, it hit me.  It was one of those lightning-to-the-head epiphanies, the kind that always brings to mind the image of John Belushi getting zapped by the ray of light in the church in THE BLUES BROTHERS.  I realized that my solution was this:

In coming up with the climax I wrote, I was working from the outside in.  Oh, sure, I’d set it up earlier in the story (albeit in a ham-fisted, amateurish manner, but what the hell, it’s a rough draft), but in practice it felt arbitrary.  It didn’t feel true to the characters; you can practically hear the gears of the malfunctioning plot grinding against one another while you read.  What I needed to do was work from the inside out — think about who the characters were, what they wanted, how they got in the way of each other in trying to attain their goal, and how it brought them to their respective low points at the end of Act II.  By establishing that, I could then figure out how they had to change during the climax.  And by establishing THAT, I could begin to work out a climax that felt more organic to the story and actually paid off the character arcs in an emotionally statisfying fashion.  As a bonus, I also suddenly had an idea of what the climactic set piece should actually be.  It was so perfect, yet so obvious, that I couldn’t believe I never thought of it earlier.

Moments like that feel so great; the whoosh of inspiration lasts only a few seconds but the warm and fuzzy afterglow can linger for hours.  I still have plenty of story details to work out and it all could still fall apart, but at least now I have a solid foundation, something to build on. 

(Of course, when I pitched this new climax to the Missus, she liked it but pointed out that it’s basically a thinly veiled fictionalization of her job situation in specific and our lives in general, albeit exaggerated to comic effect.  This, of course, never even occurred to me, once again proving that I’m possibly the least self-aware writer in the world, or at least my neighborhood.)

So anyway, why should you care about any of this, aside from the fact that I hope you think I seem like an okay guy and you’re rooting for me to succeed?  Well, if nothing else, it’s a good reminder of something to keep in mind with your own screenplays: when you hit a dead end, go back to your characters and rework from the inside out.  The people should drive the narrative, not the other way around, and more often than not, a story doesn’t work because the characters don’t work.

It’s a good thing I finally wrote that all down, ’cause god knows I forget it often enough.

Since When Did Writing Get So Hard?

October 16, 2008

For the life of me, I can barely write my name lately, let alone an outline or a scene.  What the hell is wrong with me?  Oh, yeah, I’m a parent now.  Of course, who’d want to write when presented the chance to spend the evening playing with this little cutie instead: 

Somebody needs to market an adult-sized monkey rug, incidentally.

ANYWAY… so yeah, I’m feeling more than a little distracted lately.  I don’t think it’s just the kid, either.  Despite my best efforts, my attempt to rewrite the High School Comedy has ground to a dismal halt.  Just not feeling it.  So I’ve switched to another one of the scripts I banged out before the Peanut’s arrival — the Domestic Comedy.

Yeah, that one ain’t catching fire, either.

What to do?  I’m well aware that this is one of those situations that separates the men from the boys — you either resist the pull of real life and stay the course, or you drift away and eventually realize that weeks, months, maybe years have gone by and you’ve only written a page of your script or novel since that fateful night you said to yourself, “Eh, I’ll take tonight off and come back to it fresh tomorrow.”  (This scenario is very similar to a somewhat prescient subplot in the Domestic Comedy.  Life is apparently threatening to imitate my mediocre art.)

In my defense, I’ve been working every night, even if it’s for a few minutes while the baby snoozes.  Progress is being made, even if you can only track it with the assistance of a sub-atomic microscrope.  But I just can’t crack either script — I think I understand what’s wrong with both stories, but the solutions aren’t coming.  I suspect the issue is one of focus — or rather, the lack thereof.  The Missus’ sister is coming to town this weekend, though, so that should give me the chance to slip away for some serious solitude.  Hopefully.

I can only hope that the Peanut doesn’t give me a look like this…

 

… ’cause if she does, you can kiss that writing time goodbye. On the other hand, that’s the way it should be.  I’d like to think that that may make me a bad writer but a good dad.  That sounds like a fair trade in my book.

Nothing Should Be Easy (On the Page, Anyway)

October 9, 2008

I can’t believe it’s been over a week since I last posted — where does the time go? Nothing new to report on the Wedding Comedy front; if I haven’t heard anything by next week, I’m planning on bugging one of the producers for an update. We’ll see if they actually return my calls.

I’ve been struggling to get into the rewrite of my latest script, but things haven’t been clicking yet. I suspect I’m creatively tapped out, in which case the best thing for me would be to walk away for a couple of weeks and let the well refill. But I’m going to try to push through anyway — after all, if this was an assignment, it’s not like I could tell the powers that be that I missed my deadline because I wasn’t feeling inspired. Well, I suppose I could if I never wanted to work again.

I will admit that I’ve been distracted lately; I’ve been feeling very stressed about money. My variable hours at the day job are currently working against me as my boss scales me back for the next week or so, which would be awesome if I didn’t have, you know, bills to pay. It’s really hard, having no cash in such times of economic prosperity when everybody else is running around counting the money they just pulled out of the equity in their homes and/or made in the stock market and — oh, wait, I’m having a flashback to four or five years ago. I forgot that we’re all apparently broke now. Well, even if I’m not alone, it still sucks to peek into my checking account and hear a sound akin to the wind as it whistles across the vast, cold emptiness of the Siberian plain, a sound that makes me wonder how I’m going to run power to my PC and Xbox when we’re forced to move into a family-sized cardboard box.

Okay, it’s bad, but it’s not THAT bad. I am by nature a worrier, have been for as long as I can remember — my fourth grader teacher once told me to relax before I gave myself an ulcer. I didn’t even know what the hell an ulcer was at the time, but rest assured, I worried about catching one from that day on. In Little League, I would get so wigged out about getting a hit when I was at bat that I would forget to actually swing at that ball whizzing past my head. To this day I tend to stress myself out over stuff that I should probably just ignore; early in our relationship, the Missus pointed out to me that if we were hypothetically walking through a swamp at night, she’d be looking out for alligators while I’d be worried about being hit by a falling meteor. I open my mailbox the way a bomb squad member opens a suspicious package — after all, who knows what the hell is waiting for me in there?

And yet, maybe these tendencies have actually helped me as a writer. When I sit down and try to figure out the worst thing that could happen to my hero at a given moment, by golly I can come up with an awful scenario in no time. Conflict is usually a drag in real life, but it’s worth its weight in gold in a story. There’s nothing more boring than two characters who get along, or a hero who comes up with a plan, executes it and gets what he wants. Your hero should NEVER get what he or she wants — or if he or does, then the attainment of this goal should come with unforeseen consequences. Everything has a price.

Your story should be full of reversals. I forget which script guru coined the phrase, but I’ve heard of this two-steps-forward-one-step-back story progression as “failing upward” — I like to think of it as the “but” factor. Take the second half of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, for example: Indy finds the hidden location of the Ark BUT he gets busted by the bad guys and ends up entombed with Marion. They find their way out BUT they have to chase after the Nazis to retrieve the Ark. They succeed and board a steamer bound for home BUT the Nazis catch up with them, reclaim the Ark and kidnap Marion. Indy comes to the rescue BUT, when given the opportunity to blow up the Ark, can’t do it and gets caught again. You get the idea.

I know, it’s an obvious lesson but one that many writers — myself included — sometimes forget. Everybody wishes that life was easy, including your characters. No matter how much you might wish somebody would do the same for you, don’t let them catch a break.

Contests

October 1, 2008

In case you missed it in the comments section of my last post, reader Matt kindly gave the heads up on a contest I’d never heard of before:

“Also, a little shout-out: I am never a proponent of contests, but this is kind of an insider one.

http://www.trackingb.com/?p=2004

A guy who won honorable mention is repped by my agency now, and I’ve heard good things from managers about it. Might be of some interest to your readers.”

There you go — it sounds like it might be a good one to try, so sharpen those specs, folks!  (Yes, I’m thinking about entering if I can get the new spec done in time.)

I haven’t actually entered all that many contests in my long slog toward a writing career — over the past 11 years I entered the Nicholl Fellowships twice (didn’t place the first time, became a quarterfinalist with my next script) and on a whim entered Creative Screenwriting’s AAA Competition once (made the semifinals with the original incarnation of the Wedding Comedy).  I was also one of the winners of the the end-of-year screenplay competition when I took the UCLA Professional Program in Screenwriting. 

Did any of it actually do me any good?  Actually, yes.  The UCLA award got me my first manager and my first taste of the biz when I got my name in Variety, prompting dozens of production companies to request my script — out of that batch, I got about 15 or so meet-and-greets, which was tremendously exciting to me and taught me the joys of the drive-on studio pass.  Placing in the Nicholls got me a few more meetings and contacts.  Placing in the Creative Screenwriting contest got me goose eggs, though it gave me a nice little boost to my self-esteem at a time when I really needed one.  I suppose that counts for something.

Okay, you might ask, that’s all well and good, but did it REALLY make a difference?  Well, objectively speaking, I guess not, considering that I’m still rocking the day job.  The mention in Variety was ultimately nothing, though it impressed the hell out of my mom and dad.  But there’s no question that the exposure got me in the game at those moments — the fact that I was unable to capitalize on that momentum may very well be my fault entirely.  Maybe I just wasn’t ready for the big leagues back then; I wouldn’t be the first writer who takes a long time to come into his own.  Look at Larry David, the patron saint of late bloomers — for the first 40 years of the man’s life?  Aside from brief stints on the writing staff of Fridays and later SNL, looooser.  And then he co-creates SEINFELD.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere, aside from the fact that it pays to be friends with Jerry Seinfeld.

ANYWAY, talk to a dozen writers and you’ll get a dozen different opinions on whether contests are a waste of time.  I believe that the big ones are certainly worth entering: the Nicholls, the Goldwyn Awards if you’re still a student, the Disney Fellowship.  If you can win one of those, you get the keys to the kingdom, or at least you get to hold the keys for a few minutes before they’re snatched back out of your hands if you don’t move fast enough.  This new one, the Trackingb.com competition, definitely looks promising — it’s not like you’d be submitting to the Milwaukee Senior Citizen Screenwriting Club’s annual contest or something.

Writing a script that wins a contest isn’t necessarily the same as writing a saleable script — most Nicholls winners never see the inside of a movie theater, and something makes me suspect that BALLS OF FURY wouldn’t make it past the first round of Disney (though you never know) — but placing in a big contest can do wonders for your confidence.  And maybe the right person will see your name on the list of quarter-, semi- and finalists, ask to read the script and things will build from there.

For me, that’s worth shelling out fifty bucks or so every once in a while.  You don’t want to go broke spinning every single one of those those roulette wheels, but it’s like the old New York State Lottery slogan: “Hey, you never know.”

ADDENDUM:  Matt (a pro screenwriter) had this to add: “trackingb.com is a subscription-based pseudo-tracking board. Pseudo because the comments are anonymous and anyone can join. My sense is that it’s populated by low-level execs and assistants.

That said — the judging panel is great for a rookie. Adam Marshall, Caren Bohrman, Justin Killion, any new writer would be lucky to have any of these guys represent him, which makes me think (I have no experience with the contest, a friend just happened to forward me the info) that, at the price, it’s probably one of the best contests around.”