That special spark within

roald dahl
Why is this writer smiling? You would too if you came up with the term “Everlasting Gobstopper”.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to meet with some fellow Bay Area writers. Among their number was a writer who had written some small stuff, and was in the middle of working on her first big project – a TV pilot.

Even though I don’t know much about writing for TV, I and another writer offered up what advice we could. The recipient was very appreciative, and one of the things she said later on in the conversation made a very strong impression on me.

“I know the first draft isn’t going to be perfect, but I’m just really loving writing this.”

Truer words could not have been spoken.

Like I told her, I write stuff I would want to see. It’s taken me a long time and many drafts of many scripts to feel like I’ve really come into my own. Each time, the end result is a script for a movie I think would be an absolute blast to see play out on the big screen.

It always astounds me when a writer complains about having to write (or rewrite). If you don’t like doing it, WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?

It was genuinely pleasing to hear this writer who, despite the challenges she knew awaited her, was still excited about working on this project. Sure, she was still nervous about doing a good job and hoped the end result didn’t suck too much. No matter how many scripts you’ve written, that feeling never goes away.

But to simply see her face light up while she described the story (which is a real doozy, believe you me) and hear her talk about what she’s experienced so far, including doing the research involved, and learning what to do and not to do regarding formatting, it was just really, really pleasant.

I’m sure a lot of us do this because the title “storyteller” really suits us to a tee. Are some better at it than others? Sure, but instead of being discouraged about what you perceive as a lack of progress, try seeing every time you write as a chance to learn and improve. Because it is. It’s certainly been that way for me, and I strongly suspect I’m not alone in that.

I got the impression our little chat gave this writer an extra little jolt of encouragement that she wasn’t expecting. She doesn’t know when the pilot script will be ready, but I told her not to worry about that and just keep enjoying writing it.

I suspect she will.

-Friend of the blog Andrew Hilton (aka The Screenplay Mechanic) is offering a special deal as part of his stellar screenplay analysis. (Editor’s note – his notes helped shape my western into what it is today)

If you use any of his services, refer a friend, or write a Facebook review of your experience using his services, you are automatically entered to win a free DVD of the motorcycle documentary WHY WE RIDE (of which Andrew was a co-executive producer).

The winner will be chosen on October 1st. The holidays will be here before you know it, and if you or somebody you know loves motorcycles, this would be an excellent gift (as would purchasing some of Andrew’s script services for that special screenwriter in your life).

All the details here.

-My time in the San Francisco Half-marathon the weekend before last – 2:02:56. Disappointing, but still glad I did it. I blame all those uphill stretches in the second half. And probably not training enough.

Next race is coming up in a few weeks in Oakland. Pleasantly flat Oakland. Training a little harder for it, with the intention once again of hoping to break the 2-hour mark.

A label I wear proudly

sturges
We work wherever, whenever, and however we can

I can’t remember exactly where I saw it, but a couple of days ago there was a comment in a screenwriting forum that read something like “All you wannabe dreamers are just wasting your time”.

Oh, how I adore the encouraging words of total strangers.

But in all seriousness, I take issue with that statement. Nothing wannabe about me at all. I’m a total dreamer, through and through, and I don’t see this as wasting my time.

Far from it.

I think up stories and put ’em down on paper, and I really like that I can do that. A lot. (So much to the point that I think I could actually make a living at it. Here’s hoping, anyway.)

Other dreamers express themselves using any form of different methods. They’ll paint, draw, sculpt, compose, act, or sing. And it’s probably correct in assuming they get the same joy out of doing it that I do.

Is everybody good at it? No. Does that mean they shouldn’t even try? Of course not. We do it because we enjoy it.

One consequence about being a dreamer is that there will always be somebody like that anonymous naysayer. You don’t have to listen to them. It’s a lot easier to tear someone down than it is to build them up. That person may have had been bad experiences trying to do the same thing, and if they couldn’t do it, then nobody else can (or so the theory goes).

But you should also be realistic. Not everybody’s going to create The Most Amazing Thing Ever. Don’t let that stop you from trying. Speaking from my own perspective, even though I’ve made some forward progress for both skills and career, it’s taken a long time, with the number of setbacks and disappointments being significantly higher, but despite all that, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Better to put myself through all of that rather than to have given up and not tried at all.

What can I say? It’s the dreamer in me.

So here’s to all of us dreamers. Long may our imaginations and the ability and methods in which we express them reign in an effort to make the world a slightly more enjoyable place.

Oh, and screw the naysayers.

Pacing & page numbers

number-line
Looks like there’s a lot going on up ahead

When you start reading a script, you tend to recognize pretty quickly whether or not the writer knows what they’re doing. Their mastery of the craft (or lack thereof) will become soon apparent.

Bad formatting. Misspelled words. Unfilmables. On-the-nose dialogue. Cliches as far as the eye can see. Quite a checklist.

Find one or more of these early on, let alone just on the first page (which does happen), and there’s not much hope of improvement. You’re left with no choice but to force yourself to push forward. Maybe once in a while, you glance up at the upper right corner of the page/screen.

Your shoulders sag. “I’m only up to page ____? This is taking forever!” you exclaim. Making it to the end has suddenly become a question of “if”, rather than “when”.

Now let’s examine the other side, where the writer is in total control.

You encounter writing so sharp and descriptive, you can easily “see” what’s happening. Dialogue that’s not just crisp, it practically crackles. Characters who feel and talk like real people. All of it taking place in original and entertaining situations.

You become so wrapped up that you can’t wait to get to the bottom of the page so you can move on to the next one. And maybe once in a while, you sneak a glance at the upper right corner.

Your eyebrows shoot up. “I’m already at page ____? Wow, this is just zooming by!” you exclaim. You eagerly dive back in, more than ready to continue because you simply can’t wait to see what happens next.

Now here’s the big question for you, the writer:

Of the two experiences listed above, which do you want the reader to have when they read your script?

Do you want them to be bored and see reading your script as a chore that ranks up there with cleaning out the cat’s litterbox or listening to a timeshare presentation?

Or do you want them to be so involved, their attention so riveted to the tale being told in your script, that nothing short of a major crisis or natural disaster could tear them away? (Not to diminish the intensity or significance of major crises or natural disasters, but you get the idea)

It’s tough to be that objective when it comes to reading your own material. You think it’s good (“How could anyone not like it?”), but every reader has their own criteria for what works and what doesn’t. The challenge is crafting together a script so rock-solid that not liking it is not an option. Not sure if yours is? Seek outside opinions. Rewrite with the mindset of “how can I make this better?”.

As screenwriters, our primary goal is to tell an entertaining story. The last thing we want is for someone to be easily distracted by something/anything else when they’re supposed to be reading (and in theory, enjoying) our scripts.

Finding my forte. Mining my milieu. Spelunking my specialty.

e-ticket
A reference only a select few will get. (85 cents?? Truly a bygone age)

While engaged in a very engaging conversation about screenwriting earlier this week, the person with whom I was conversing with asked the simplest and most straight-forward of questions:

“What do you like to write?”

Without a moment’s hesitation, I proudly stated, “Adventures.”

You can’t even say the word without implying the thrills and excitement it entails. Hands on hips, chest out, shoulders back, and a firmly-set jaw are automatically included.

I’ve enjoyed dabbling in other genres (such as drama and comedy), but nothing really grabs me like thinking up and writing out some sort of heart-pounding, edge-of-your-seat rollercoaster ride of a scene or sequence.

Those really never get old.

They say “Write what you know,” and although I’ve never actually fought monsters, manned a runaway train, or flown a space-faring vessel, years of reading and watching material of that type and nature has taught me an effective way of how to effectively inject adrenaline into what I’m writing.

More than a few readers have commented that my love and appreciation of the material and genre are boldly evident on the page, which is what I’m hoping  to accomplish every time.

My mantra has always been “Write something I would want to see”, and my list of future projects is jam-packed with numerous ideas and concepts that neatly fall into that category; each one a variation on the topic of discussion.

If these are the kinds of stories I was meant to write, you’ll get no complaints from me. I get a real kick out of cranking this stuff out. There’s no reason to think this can’t develop into what I build a career on and eventually become known for (he said, his fingers firmly crossed). My scripts. Rewriting someone else’s. Contributing to another. It’s all cool as far as I’m concerned.

Until then, all I can do is keep writing and making my readers feel their pulses quicken as they eagerly turn the page, absolutely spellbound to find out how the hero gets themselves out of this particular pickle, and, more importantly, what happens next.

Strap yourselves in, chums. This is going to be one helluva ride.

Could it get made today?

psycho-house
“Another “boy and his mother” story? Pass.”

Originally, this post was going to be about the multiple changing of protagonists in PSYCHO (which is another great potential future topic), but the more I read about the film and thought about the impact it’s had since being released way back in 1960, it triggered a totally different train of thought.

Every once in a while, when a classic film is brought up in some context or another, the phrase “That could never get made today” will get thrown in. After the recent death of Gene Wilder, his talent was lauded via the mention of several of his most well-known roles. Willy Wonka. The Waco Kid. Victor Frankenstein (“That’s Fronken-steen.”). His performances were vital parts of each film, which no doubt contributed to making them “classics”.

But, as always, it starts with the script. (Incidentally, I don’t think Wilder gets enough credit for co-writing YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.)

Examining the stories being told, each one has something truly unique about it, and then some. The writer (and subsequently the filmmaker) wasn’t afraid to take a chance and try something completely new and different. Sadly, the studios today aren’t as open to it. Better to play it safe then take too big a chance, which is why we’re seeing so many remakes and re-imaginings. Of course, that doesn’t always work out either (e.g. 2015’s PAN, the recent BEN-HUR remake).

While there are always original and innovative scripts floating around, it’s a lot of time, effort and money to make a film. The only recent original film I can think of is SWISS ARMY MAN, which I admit I haven’t seen yet.

Who hasn’t read a “truly original” script or about one getting a lot of attention, but a lot of the time the writer will go on to work on other projects while the script that started the whole thing gathers dust?

The best exception to this that I know of is Travis Beacham’s spec A KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW, which drew a lot of heat when it sold in 2005, then continued to garner praise while it languished in development for years before ultimately becoming an upcoming series on Amazon – at last check, anyway.

Budgets are getting higher, and the gap continues to grow between microbudget features and mega-budget tentpoles. It’s getting harder for original material to get noticed, let alone something that screams out “NEW!” It also doesn’t help that the chances decrease if the script isn’t based on pre-existing material. This could be why today you’re more likely to see an original film that’s a low-budget independent, probably written by the filmmaker themselves.

Before that, your best bet of seeing something groundbreaking would have been at the hands of established filmmakers, only because they had that kind of leverage (and the budget) to get their projects made. An unknown writer doesn’t have that kind of luxury. All we can hope for is to connect with somebody who likes the script (and our writing) so much that they’re actually excited to help us take things beyond the “Sure, I’ll read it” stage.

That’s our objective as writers: to write something that’s not only compelling and involving, but so eye-openingly original that the reader is compelled to the point that they need to see this as a movie. Doable, but definitely not easy.

Homework time! Part one – find a script you really consider a game-changer for the same genre as yours and give it a read. Can you identify what made it so unique? What really stands out for you? Plot? Story? Characters? A little of everything? Another option is if that script has been produced, then watch the film and follow along with the script. Are they the same? Totally different? Do you think the changes add or take away from the script?

Part two – without blatantly copying the style of that script, work on applying a similar originality to yours. Did reading that script inspire ways for you to make yours really stand out?

Don’t be afraid to take chances. Strive to offer up something we’ve never seen before. The results might surprise you, too.

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