Monday, December 27, 2010

Deadlines Don't Wait For Santa

Note to Hollywood: When did you become Europe?

My friends in Germany, France and Spain hardly ever put in a solid month of work. There is always some bank holiday, some religious thing that no one understands or can define that precludes them from going to work. On top of that they all get about two months vacation...

Well, in recent years, so does Hollywood. It used to be that things shut down for Thanksgiving and didn't really get going again until after Sundance in mid-January. But, lately, it feels like people start checking out day before Halloween and maybe arrive again after Valentine's day. And the summer? Nothing moves forward but the sun.

Well, the sun moves and the writer. We write our buns off year-round. And Christmas or no, I wrote my buns off to make my deadline!

(Okay - you know what? No, I did not in fact write my buns off. I, in fact, think I grew an extra bun during this project. And what I really wanted for Christmas was a Wii Fit. I imagined becoming Gillian Michaels after my son was asleep and I had that precious 45 minutes of downtime before collapsing into insomnia. But, did Santa hear my plea? Still waiting.)

Why is it that stress and being chained to your desk 22 hours of every day makes everything turn to inflatable mush buckets? My son pointed to my belly yesterday and said with a big grin: "Fat." Yeah, thanks son. I'm only sitting down and not getting my workout in order to put you through college. So, we're just going to have to deal with a little extra jiggle.

My script was due at the end of the year and for various reasons I wanted to make sure it was recorded in the 4th quarter (taxes, pension and health, etc.). But, in order for it to be checked in, it needed to be received on Thursday December 16 (before everyone in accounting went on va-cay) not December 31 when it was due. Anyone counting that's over two weeks early. Two weeks of an 8 week deadline is a big chunk of early.

But The studio is doing me a solid and gives me a choice of turning it in early or holding off and turning it in when they return from vacation. Giving me until January 7th - because nobody reads anything until the weekend.

But, because of personal medical issues with my son, I really need to get it in 4th quarter. Which now ends two weeks and two days earlier than expected.

I find this out on Monday December 13th, post-lunch. Up to this point, I had been jamming on the script, keeping up the schedule I had pieced together. Working late to catch up here and there, but not really killing myself. Yeah, well that went out the window. I wrote 60 pages in 4 days. I spent all but about six hours in those four days in front of my computer.

And are you ready for a Christmas miracle? It came out really good. I got notes and everything and took a week away before re-reading myself - and I'm really excited. So now, I'm just waiting for notes - which will for sure come my way by the end of Sundance.

But, once you've lived with something and worked out the story using all your tools. And once all that's left to do is write the scenes - this can go much faster than you could possibly imagine. Kind of like those people on The Biggest Loser who can run farther than they thought they could. (Are you sensing that I'm obsessed with dropping the holiday ten I packed on?)

I'm going to have to remember this "fast writing" technique when I relaunch into reworking The Spec. I have a feeling my agent thinks will be ready when he returns to the office next week. Luckily, nobody really gets down to business until February - so I might be able to buy some time.

Fingers crossed and happy writing.

Friday, December 10, 2010

My Hollywood Agent: A love-hate relationship

I love my agent because he's always right.

I hate my agent because he's always right.

I finally talked with my agent about the spec. And here are the results:

While he still believes in the concept (and he should because it was mainly his idea) and thinks I can bring this baby home, he told me I need to throw about 2/3 of it out and start again.

You heard me 2/3.

Gulp. (And, yes, if you're wondering, that goes down about as easy as chugging lighter fluid spiked with hot sauce.)

But, I'm a pro. And I took it like a pro. I listened.

Because I had distance from the script. I'm really grateful my wise managers made me sit on it and that it took a couple weeks to connect with my agent about his response.

Emotionally disconnecting from your work before you get feedback is always key. Get away from it for as long as you can and it will hurt less. Kind of like a band-aid that's gotten really gooey from the shower before you rip it off.

I listened to what my big agent was saying, but just as importantly I listened to what my gut was saying. And my gut actually agreed with the big agent. (Traitor! I have a love-hate relationship with my gut, too.) What my gut was saying was, "He's right again, damn him, I'd rather see that movie, too."

So how do I feel about going back to the nearly blank chalkboard? Actually, I feel inspired.

My agent gets paid the big bucks because he's very good at his job. He also is one of the rare agents out there that give really brilliant feedback, not only zeroing in on the market, but actually breaking the story as good as any writer I know.

It kinda makes me want to bash him in the teeth.

But, I can't because... well, I love him.

I needed to write this version of the script in order to get to the best version of the script. Often times, us writers just troll around having no idea we are headed in the wrong direction until the odious evidence wafts up from our falsely landed foot. (Sometimes it's just fun to write really bad stuff like that.)

Luckily, I'm not alone. And I'm very grateful.

So, now that meeting is behind me and I delivered the pitch (news still pending on that one, but it's off my desk for the moment) - here's the plan:

1) Finish the assignment.

2) During Reading Period (this is when the studio and producers and director read and give you feedback) I will dive back into the Spec.

I love a challenge and I'm determined to make the spec the greatest work of my career (so far...)

Keep those emails and posts coming. They really brighten my day, well... they stop me from eating chips for a few minutes at least.

Happy Writing.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Writing Truth: You can never really see the end before you get there (and looking for it can really mess you up)...

Trust me on this, I've been stuck and staring into the abyss (while inhaling a bag of chips) all day.

Situation: Two deadlines approaching. (Imagine me tied to the train tracks like in those old fashioned cartoons with two locomotives barreling towards me from both directions.)

Problem: Stress. Fear. Overload. The Holidays. The baby. Stress. Fear. Overload.

Solutions Tried: Alternating between eating Salt & Vinegar Chips and Sour Patch Skittles. Alternating between drinking Pale Ale and Red Wine. Cried. Yelled at my husband. Retail therapy. More binging.

Result: Guilt. Regret. Embarrassment. And saddest of all - the same deadlines approaching, only now I they are so close I can feel the rails rattle.

So what's a writer to do? Back in the day (pre-baby) I would have chained myself at my desk, ordered up a box of jelly-filled and banged it out with about 45 gallons of Starbucks. Working night after night until three or four in the morning sometimes puts you in such an unhinged state of mind that you're will to just go for it, try anything. That's often when you make a fantastic discovery.

But those days are gone. Let's face it, if I accidentally stay awake past 11PM I go into meltdown mode. If there's one thing I can count on, it's that the baby will be up at least two hours before I want to even think about opening my eyes.

This is the new normal. I'm certainly not the first one to land here. I've got to find a way to make this work. And, let's be honest these are good problems to have. Too much work? I ain't complaining. I just want to do a good job. And the more I want to do a good job the more stressed I get, the farther I feel away from my goal.

And then it hit me.

I decided after a "working nap" that resulted nothing but a stiff neck - to go for a "working walk" and try to shake the cobwebs out of my head and some of the "salt & vinegar chip" off my flabby backside. And as I was pushing the stroller up the hill, telling my babbling baby boy what I needed to do to make both of the projects I'm working on work - I realized what I was doing wrong...

I recognized it immediately - because I've done it before. More like again, again and again.

I was trying to see the finished product!

The stress of having to complete two projects simultaneously with my new life pressures kept me worrying about how I was going to pull it off. How was I going to get to the end? How was I going to finish in time? How was I going to solve all the problems and come up with what the producers want?

All of these questions were focusing on the end result. Of course I couldn't move forward. Because you can NEVER see the end when you're in the middle.

The only way to really see the end of a piece (the piece that has subtle and powerful dialogue, subplots that interweave theme and plot effortlessly, the perfect rise and fall, surprises) is to arrive there one step and one discovery at a time.

Yes, you make a plan. An outline, a beat sheet, you cast your path out ahead of you - but you walk down that path one step at a time. Carefully checking in and making sure you didn't inadvertently go in the wrong directly.

That's also why you have drafts. You write one and then add to it, change it, vary it. How could you possibly see the end result if you haven't even written draft two? What are you psychic? No! You're a writer. And we're in this together.

Trying to see the end freezes your brain. So here's what I'm doing next. I'm looking at the next scene in my script and I'm going to write draft two on my pitch. Wow - that feels better already. It's not the final draft - it's just the next one. No biggie.

So on to the next step....

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

How To Start Your Writing Project

Okay the closets are organized, the drawers in your refrigerator are sparkling, the car has been detailed and the tires have been rotated, you know what I mean. I know you do. The only thing left to do is start.

But what if, like me, you're kind of fuzzy on the whole first act. It's all there, but I'm just not sure if point c or point d is my inciting incident. Is point x or y the first act turning point?

I've rearranged my cards on the board. I've done a one-line beat sheet run down. The story is in the order it should be, I have a clear vision of my character, her arc and what needs to be set up. But, still I'm not sure. I'm not sure. I've done this 21 times and I'm not sure.

And I'm not going to be sure. Sometimes I am. This time I'm not. Every project comes out a little differently and this time. Here I am - writing it anyway.

Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith. Write it. Write it fast and then read it. That will lead to ideas, which will lead to a revision, which will lead to figuring out the puzzle.

This is exactly how I broke through writing the first ten pages of my current writing assignment.

But I couldn't have done it without my writing buddy. Yes, the most important tool in any writer's arsenal - the person who knows exactly what you're going through because they have/are going through it themselves.

In my case, my writing buddy said - "Just write anything and send it to me." Those little words, knowing that my writing buddy was there for me, freed me up to start.

I didn't even end up needing to send my writing buddy my pages, but just knowing that she's out there. If need be. Golden.

So, go out and make a writing buddy connection. More on the perfect writing buddy can be read about in my post Getting The Most Out Of Your Notes.

Writing groups also can serve a fabulous purpose in the beginning of a writing career. They help you make connections, long standing connections that will buoy you over the long haul. One word of warning: Most great writing groups are filled with highly motivated and productive writers - you may find yourself spending your valuable writing time reading.

Reading others work is the best way to learn about writing, but once you start juggling multiple projects and working on crazy deadlines, this luxury won't be feasible. That's why at this stage, I depend on my Writing Buddies.

On the other hand, a good friend of mine has a writing group where everyone meets to do a short timed writing. They discuss what was written in the room and they go home. That sounds so stimulating and dynamic. I mention this to say that a writing group can take many forms. The point is get together with the other odd birds on this crazy trip and lean on each other in whichever way best supports you getting to your goal.

Happy Writing - even if you are just slogging through it to discover what's on the other side!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Why Writers Drink

To stay sane.

Short post.

See you tomorrow.


It's a cliche to be sure, but behind all cliches are ugly truths. I can't speak for all writers - but the reason why I do a lot of things is fear. Writing is scary.

I'll share a story that has haunted me for probably 15 years, maybe longer. As an undergraduate theater major, an acting professor once advised our class, "Never buy property." To be an artist you had to ride the highs and lows. Having a house payment would force an artist to make bad choices, desperate choices.

These words have been ringing in my ears ever since. In part, because it's true.

Not only do I have a mortgage, but I've got a diaper-dirtying machine who needs everything from food to doctor's visits to a new pair of shoes (on a monthly basis).

Does all this responsibility effect my choices?

Not really.

Does it stoke the fires of fear into an inferno? Does it add to my insomnia? Do I digest properly - no way! But, if regular bowel movements and sleeping without pills were all that important to me I would have gone into banking. (Ha!) You see? there are no guarantees in this day and age anyway. What was once the most stable of professions has been turned on its ear. So, if you have a choice between uncertainty and uncertainty - I say go with the one that fulfills your dreams.

In reality having a mortgage hanging over my head still doesn't effect my choices - because when a writing job comes, I try to get it. Because nobody ever knows when the next one will be. Unless it was a topic that I morally objected to, I try to make it work. I try to crack that nut. Which is what I'm currently doing, while also moving forward with The Assignment.

If I was living in an apartment or in a house or in a van on Fourth street, I'd still try to crack that nut. (Especially if I was living in a van on Fourth Street.)

Only now, owning a house, having a family makes going after that job less about my own ego and winning, as it does about providing for my family. Which really makes the entire process more satisfying, not more scary.

So, then, if everything is so peachy, why do writer's drink and over-eat particularly when it comes to nachos and pizza?

Because writing is scary. You ask yourself to go to a place where you're not sure anything exists and pull out something that will inspire. No guarantees. Freaking terrifying.

But here's the bottom line, my life would be a lot scarier if I wasn't doing what I love.

So, after a long day of having plots and scenes and dialogue running through my skittish brain, I like to unwind with a glass of red or a bottle of Pale and reflect on just how great it feels to be doing exactly what I was meant to do. Come what may.

I will leave you with a movie recommendation, a semi-old but serious goodie. I saw Adaptation in Century City on opening night many moons ago. The entire audience was filled with writers. There was a collective gasp of recognition after the opening monologue. Charlie Kaufman is a genius and if you really want to know what it's like - the first half of this film nails it.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What if that Pale Ale I drank last night killed the brain cells that formerly retained my screenwriting know-how?

I realized on day two of blogging about The Assignment - that I am going down the same steps I did with my first 20 scripts. I'm writing about the same process I've blogged about in detail since July. I'm en route to writing the most boring and repetitive blog in the the blogasphere. And I'm not about boring people. So, change of plan. If you want to read about the specific steps I'm going to describe it starts with the post: "And So It Begins." I'll add relevant links back to previous posts as I complete this script.

I've decided to focus my blogging about my 21st screenplay - The Assignment - on the emotional process. I haven't found anyone out there in screenwritingland who's talked about the nearly insurmountable mountain of fear and self-loathing that goes into the writer's journey. And it's not because I'm the only one. If there's one common thread that links screenwriters (outside of our appreciation of sweatpants) it's insecurity.

Screenwriters who don't have the insecurity thing plaguing them quickly evolve into writer/directors. Trust me on this.

So, here it is - psyche exposed.

I am under contract to write the sequel to my previously successful movie. And as usual, I'm wondering how to start, how I ever did this in the first place?

General worries include very rational things like, "What if that Pale Ale I drank last night killed the brain cells that formerly retained my screenwriting know-how?"

I've got to be honest. The pressure is a little bigger on me because I feel like I need to write something even better than the last one. And I know better. That kind of thinking will prevent me from even getting out of the starting gate.

What I've got to do is just write, stay in the moment. It's like in golf. If you think, "I've got to birdie this hole to break 80", you have pretty much guaranteed yourself a double bogey.

So, how do I get started. Always the hardest part. Once you get that first scene under your belt - well, it's like turning on the lights and making the monsters disappear.

But right now - I'm just trying to get my plot cards up on the wall. Here's what I've accomplished so far:

1) I hung a picture that had been waiting around my office in need of a hook for months.
2) I cleared off my "outline" cork board to my "random crap" cork board on the other side of the office.
3) I cleared my desk, filed paperwork, organized project files with notes I'd been stuffing in my "inbox" since my last assignment. I even cleaned my computer keyboard and monitor.

Funny how working on the spec didn't motivate me to organize anything. Having a contract kind of puts up a force field, limiting your mobility to a six foot radius around your computer. Now my entire office is so well organized it looks like nobody has ever done a day of work in here.

There is literally nothing left to do but write.

So, now what? On-line card games, facebook, e-mailing distant relatives are all calling my name. But, NO! I must resist. It is time to get to work.

When it's really time, you feel it. You just know. It's time.

I am taking out my collection of cards. I'm opening my treatment that I've broken down into Acts and major beats. I'm transferring the big turning points first onto cards and then onto the board... I'm feeling better already.

Hope you are, too.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Day Two - The Assignment

First a note on the spec. Agent sent apologies, has not read yet. Maybe next weekend or over the holiday? I'm not sweating it. With the holidays there's not much action that is going to take place right now anyway.

So I will focus on my assignment. Which is in a rush.

Day Two: Cards

So, I took my pitch and tried to break it down into an outline. And that didn't get me very far - because the pitch was so condensed. To expand it to a nice outline with approximately 40 beats - I get to pull out some of my favorite play things: Index Cards.

Hanging on the wall behind my desk is an enormous cork board just for this purpose.

Putting scenes on cards is a freeing exercise. It must use a different part of your brain.

Start with the scenes you know you have to write. Jot down notes on anything and everything from dialogue to ideas about what actually happens in the scene. As ideas come up that don't fit into the scenes you already have in your treatment jot them down on their own cards. Put the randoms over to one side and start lining up the "mandatory" cards in their acts, in order. It's loads of fun.

This should take me another day to complete. If I wasn't under contract, I'd probably stretch this process out all week - but there's that nasty little deadline making me uber efficient.

When I arrive at 40 cards - then I'm on to the next step.

Until then... Happy Writing.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Day One - The Assignment

It's Monday November 15th and I'm officially moving from "research" to writing on my new writing assignment job. And by that I mean, I searched through all my old journals to gleam some clue on how the hell I ever pulled this off before.

Kidding, studio if you are reading this. I got this. No worries.

Seriously, I'm not kidding. This is unfortunately part of my process. I've been given eight weeks to write a very solid draft of a script.

At least the first full writing day is spent agonizing over how to get started while organizing my office well enough to pass an inspection from an anal-retentive-clutter-phobe.

Here is an actual snippet from a journal entry from probably three assignments ago:

"But here I am turning to my journal - all of which, each fragmented segment has lent absolutely zero insight. Each time I start a new project I’m overwhelmed with the notion that I have absolutely no clue how to do this. So I go back to my journal writing, reading through and hoping to find some clue. The only clue being that I have felt this way before."

File that under - the more things stay the same. Journal regurgitation finished. Desk organizing. Done. (How happy am I that I finally located that picture from Oktoberfest?) Okay, okay! I'm starting.

First, I'm going to take the short treatment that I pitched and I am breaking it down. Here's how that goes. I duplicate the treatment and make a new document called "outline." I then break out all the story beats into any recognizable scenes and give them a slug line. I identify where they will take place.

Then I step back and see what I have. Hopefully, I'll have a nice 10-10-10-8 division of scenes. But, I won't. There will be holes. There will be too much on one side of the mid-point and not enough on the other.

I will pull out my two favorite tricks of the trade to help me even it out. You can read about those - here. Also, I might stick my "tonal guide-post" breakdowns up on my cork board for when in doubt moments, you can read about those in my post "Stumbles Are Necessary".

Happy Writing!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Script Number 21 & A Story About Pitching

This blog began as a way to commemorate the writing of my 20th script - referred to herein as The Spec. (I just signed pages of contracts and lawyer-speak is contagious, sorry!)

The Spec has just hit the first-draft-worthy-of-showing-people stage and therefore, is by no means close to the end of its journey. That said, I am preparing to start writing my 21st screenplay, an original story I have come up with to fulfill a writing assignment. This will hereto be referred to as The Assignment. (Oops, did it again.)

So, this might be a great time to deliver that long time promised post about pitching. But first a story; a cautionary tale:

The first time I took out a pitch it was with my former writing partner and it was disastrous. During our second meeting, the executive fell asleep half way through. I will never forget her gum falling out of her mouth, rolling across the floor and stopping right in front of my brand new shoes I hoped would impress people, but I could in no way afford. So much for that.

On the way to our next pitch (back then it was a mad frenzy to pitch all the buyers the same day) we got a call that all our meetings had been canceled and we were to report to our agent's office. Do not pass go, do not collect a million dollar preemptive bid.

Our agent sat us down and said, "Pitch me." We started. First my partner started with the set-up and then about five minutes later I jumped in to do "We open with...".

I noticed that while I was pitching my partner was mouthing silently all of my lines. To her defense, we had practiced this for weeks and I was probably doing the same thing when it was her turn, only I probably added hand-gestures.

Ten minutes in, our agent held up his hand and said, "What are you doing? Are you pitching this movie in real time? How long is this running?"

Barely audible I answered: "Once we did it in 58 minutes."

Our agent's head dropped on his desk.

Looking back now - it is just one of a hundred mistakes I have made in my career. Now, it's funny. Then, it was embarrassing and potentially a career ending level of bad. We were lucky to get a second chance. That said, the industry is more fickle now. Hopefully other writers will be able to learn from my mistakes.

That said, a good pitch has you hooked 30 seconds in and lasts no longer than 10 minutes.

You see how far off the mark we were? But, we loved our story. It was a great story. The characters were amazing. It would have been the best thing we ever wrote. But we weren't skilled enough pitchers to give that idea its chance in the spotlight.

Honestly, I have yet to master the short pitch. I still struggle. I'm a 15-20 minute pitcher - but I'm also funny in a room and I make a lot of comedic asides. I am not recommending this tactic. It's a crutch - each and every time I try to be a 10 minute pitcher, I will always try until my last time "in the room."

That said, my batting average isn't that bad. Of the last four assignments I've been up for I've landed three. I'm not saying this to brag, I just want you to trust me. Cut it down. Cut it down. Cut it down.

Now for the nitty-gritty:

There are two primary types of pitches. Pitches of your original ideas (either tv or feature) that you hope a buyer (studio or network) will purchase and give you the money to write in advance. There are also the pitches for "open writing assignments" and "rewrites."

The difference is that on the latter you have a set of criteria you must incorporate. Usually, you are considered for the gig because the producer/studio/network has read your writing sample and they feel your talents would lend themselves to their project.

Since pitching your original idea will dovetail into the pitching for an assignment, I'll continue with the assignment track.

Your agent or your manager calls you up and says that there's a potential assignment at studio "x". They read "y" of yours as a sample. Your agent/manager will give you the one-liner and whatever else they know of the direction the studio wants to take.

For example, "It is a movie about the Kentucky Derby. They read your story about the Off-Track betting and think you'd work. The original draft is a thriller where there's a plot to kill the favorite before the race. The studio wants to turn this into a fish out of water comedy starring (insert SNL comedian turned blockbuster star) with a strong love-interest subplot. She may or not be the horse's jockey."

For those of you in the business, even though this does sound nearly plausible, I made this example up.

So, now you get to work. And here's the part that is just like pitching your own original idea. You come up with a way to set up your main character, meaning make us care about what he's after, make us want him to get it and then throw a big obstacle in his path. You hit all the major turning points, making sure to illuminate the scope and tone of your piece. Don't forget about the set-pieces. (I define SP's as the fun moments that will probably end up in the trailer, but are usually the same fun ideas you can't wait to write.)

I've had tremendous success following the late and great Blake Snyder's SAVE THE CAT formula, which I tweaked to create my own Story Grid.

Once I find all my major points, giving a lot of attention to my main characters arc, I write the beats from my Story Grid out how I would say it. (It is always, one hundred percent too long.) I then edit it down as much as I can and start practicing telling the story in the mirror.

In the mirror is key. You have to say it so many times that you can say it like you were telling a story to your friend. Know it well enough that you can answer questions and then jump right back in after being interrupted.

Practicing it this much also tells you where it lags. When you get to a part you want to skip - see if you can cut that. Then practice on everyone who will listen. I practiced once at a cafe with a stranger who was also a single eating alone. She turned out to know a lot about the arena of my film. We are still friends.

The meeting is set and you pitch it. Going into a room is a heroic feat for us writers. We live most of our work lives in sweat-pants and bedhead. Our best conversations are with imaginary characters that we create and rewrite and kill if need be. So, to step into a room filled with execs (all of whom are smart, attractive, articulate and very, very learned on your craft) and become "the showman." Well, it's like asking a trained seal to drop the ball and clapping act and instead paint a still-life watercolor.

Also, often, not always, but often good "pitchers" aren't the best writers. As good writers often aren't the best pitchers. We are all unique. We all have places where we can and should work on our game. I'm too long-winded. My long irons tend to fade. Doesn't mean I'm not great out of the sand.

You do what you can. You give it your all. Sometimes you get the gig. Often times you don't. But each time you try you are better. Each time you try you are that much closer to success.

Happy Writing!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The First Finish Line

This is the moment we've all been waiting for! I am turning my spec into my agent for him to read. Hopefully, he'll get to it this weekend, or the next depending on how many projects came in.

If he likes it, then he'll either have notes (because he's one of the few agents who give really great notes) or he'll think it's ready to show people.

At that point, we'll come up with a plan to sell it. This plan will probably include packaging*. But, we'll blog about that bridge when we slowly slog over it. Specs usually don't go out to studios without "attachments" any more. But, as I said, the "plan" is a future blog subject.

If the agent doesn't like it. Well, (insert explicative here). Hopefully, I won't have to blog about that. But, you never know. Just because something is well written does not guarantee a sale. There could be a glut of material in the same genre competing for a small group of actors' attention. Or you could just run up against bad luck. There's no need to worry about that. That's your rep's job mainly. Your job is to write something that has a chance to sell and do your best on it. And I can honestly say I've done that. Let the chips fall where they may.

So, how many drafts has this "first draft" taken? Here's a review:

1) I came up with a short treatment. Got notes.
2) I expanded that to an outline. Got notes.
3) I wrote a very quick "vomit draft." Got notes. Mainly that one of the characters was so unlikeable it threw off the viability of the hero's actions. Fixed that.
4) I wrote a solid rough draft. Got notes. The notes discovered that the tone was too "rom-com" and I rewrote the next draft to reflect a more "dramatic/romantic/inspirational" tone.
5) The first draft was born. I got notes. These notes suggested areas where I could enhance character, add more flavor to my locations, hit certain beats a slightly different way. Did that.
6) I went through a final pass (and so did my managers) for trims - to get it as tight as possible. And now we are here. First Draft dated November 9, 2010.

This has actually been a very slow process for me, but nowadays specs really one have one shot at success. My agent will read it once and decide if it is something he can get behind. That's it. One read. So, I took my time. I wanted to take my best shot.

Between July 1 and November 9 (the time it took to get to this stage) I also wrote a bunch of other things as well, including the writing assignment I recently landed. As I said, if you are a writer, you are also a juggler. And I'm very happy to get this script "off my plate" for a while so I can focus on my writing assignment.

The contracts on THE ASSIGNMENT should be ready by the end of the week - which means the clock starts on when I have to have the draft in to the studio. That first draft will have to be ready in either eight or six weeks, depending on what my representation works out in the deal.

I will blog about that process concurrently while tracking how THE SPEC continues - updates on each will be identified as SPEC or ASSIGNMENT.

So, isn't it exciting? What do you think the agent will say? Am I on the verge of success or about to fall off a cliff? Who knows. All you can do is the best you can do. Then you've got to let it go.

Happy Writing!

*There are only a few actors in each age group who can "green-light" a movie. And nowadays you need one of them to commit to your project to get a sale.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Best Words A Writer Can Ever Hear?

Well, I heard the best words a writer can hear today. Can you guess what they are?

You might think it would be praise for your writing. You might think it would be how a story you wrote brought them to tears, mad them laugh. Yes, it is phenomenal when I renowned producer like Donald Deline quotes a line you've written back to you... Or when a major movie star tells you that they love the character you wrote for them. These are moments you won't forget.

But, in the reality of a writer's life, all of those great things fall short to this simple phrase: "Let's get you paid, so you can start writing."

So, while the spec is going to make its way over to my agents this week - still doing a small bit of character tweaking. I am once again an employed writer.

So, to recap: I have a project in New York being Exec Produced by Garry Marshall. I have a big spec hopefully soon to be packaged by my big agency. I have a novel half way finished and a mocumentary directing project set for next year - but it is super, duper great to be writing on assignment. It is the bread and butter that lets all the other things have their chance.

So, rejoice with me and be grateful for every job - no matter how big or small. The key to writing in this day and age is to keep as many plates spinning in the air as possible.

Happy writing!

PS. The next post will be on pitching. An art form in and of itself and must have skill when it comes to getting work in Hollywood.

Monday, October 11, 2010


I am happy to report that once again going back to basics has saved the day.

I have solved the problem with the last 10%. A new opening - which actually allows my character to show her warts - so that over the course of the film we can get them removed. Okay- that analogy may not be in my top 3.2 million, but I'm rushing. I have a conference call in 12 minutes.

Good news just can't wait. I am now working this refined character through the story and expect to have a new (and hopefully - ready to show people) draft by Friday!

Hurrah for Hollywood... Da da da da da da da Hollywood.....

If you are stuck on a spot. Go to your trusted readers. Listen, even if you don't want to. Step back. Clear your head. Then give yourself permission to try something wild. (The duplicate draft command is key to this. You can always go back to what you had. It's a win-win. Go for it.)

After a couple tries you might just hit on the solution. And then you'll get to experience the "breakthrough bliss." The bigger the road-block, the bigger the bliss. This one feels like I should pop a magnum.

Happy Re-Writing!

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Wall Seems to Be Winning

We expected a few bumps in the road, didn't we?

So the first draft sailed to completion - but now that we are 90% there - the last 10% of work is getting the better of me. It's only the opening. The first 5-10 pages of the script. The part that sets up the story, introduces our character and her pre-movie situation, the problems in her world that need to be resolved. The part that makes us like her and invests us in following her journey. It's also the only part you are guaranteed everyone in the biz will read. So, just that.

It is the most important 10% of the whole script. It has to be just right. And although the majority of people who have read the script like the opening - there are an important few who just don't like it as much of the rest of the story. And even though I am in the latter - and I love the opening I have - I've been around the block enough to know - your first pages have to work for everybody. Well, that one crazy aunt who wears house-slippers to the supermarket, we can let her go. But everyone else must have the same reaction. Do you know what that reaction is?

I want to read more.

So, today, tomorrow, the next day and the day after that I will be working and reworking my opening.

And how am I going to do that? I'm going to go back to character and character arc. I'm going to invite my character into the squishy recesses of my brain cavity and let her hang out. I'm going to imagine what she learns and where she ends up. I'm going to then use that information to create a scene that best sets this up.

Wish me luck and happy banging your head against the wall. (It just makes if feel that much more satisfying when you happen upon the solution.)

Friday, October 1, 2010

Nearly There - And Diverted

Here's the reality of spec writing - paying gigs always take precedence. So this week - I've assembled all the feedback (nearly) and I'm preparing to launch into the last minor pass. (Which should only take a day or two.) But, an assignment has come up and I need to place the majority of my focus on that.

I love writing on assignment. I get lots of questions on how that works - and in a nutshell here goes:

A studio has a property (either a script, a novel, a magazine article or just a concept) that they want to turn into a movie. They look for a writer to turn the property into a script or to take the script they already have into a new direction.

The producer or studio reads samples from a list of writer's they have generated. They select a few and invite those people in to discuss the idea. Usually you have to pitch your "take" or your version of the story. If they like your take the best you are offered the job. Then your peeps get to negotiate your terms while you hold your breath hoping the deal doesn't fall through.

Assignments are great because they make you think in creative ways you wouldn't normally happen upon in your spec work. It's an outside in process - instead of an inside out. Meaning, a spec is usually something that you are interested and you create it to share your idea with the world. An assignment is an idea that is given to you and you make it your own. I love it. It also pays the bills and keeps your family under good health coverage.

That said, it's time to come up with a pitch for the assignment. There's a wrinkle with this assignment because there are already elements attached and the story has to fit a number of preordained criteria. Tricky. Well, that's why they need a professional. If it wasn't hard, anybody could do it. So, no belly-aching here. Just make it happen.

Hopefully, I'll land the job quickly and while my contracts are being drawn up and I can top-off the spec script. Or while they agonize over whether to hire me or not, I can finish my spec. But first things first. This is part of the juggling act I alluded to in my "Life as a Writer" post.

I've got a plan. Deep breathes. One step at a time... I'll keep you posted.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Reality of Life as a Professional Writer

Brown Out in Los Angeles prevented my notes from coming in yesterday. I got a brief text which indicated that things were good - I believe it started with "loved it" but I won't post about the next step until I've met with all parties concerned.

In the meantime, I thought I might say a word about the life of a writer. Which since the last strike has been evolving at a rate that would make Darwin flip in the ground.

For a rare handful life as a screenwriter involves foreign sports cars and warm nuts being served on airline flights. For the majority of us it's feast or famine. Your life vacillates between having no money and plenty of time to tons of money and no time at all to enjoy it. Finding a balance and a way to make your fiances stretch through the lean times is as important as knowing how to write. I'm not joking.

Because understanding how to save for a rainy day and invest your money wisely (I was never tempted to buy a sports car) keeps you free to write. Keeps you in the game. And nowadays allows you to diversify.

My current reality is that not only am I taking writing assignments (when they come)and finishing this feature spec I've been blogging about. I'm also writing a novel - in hopes of expanding into a new revenue stream. I've also recently found a directing project - because the reality of the business in good times and in the Great Recession is you must keep as many plates spinning as possible. You have no control over what will take off and what will die - you just have to work on perfecting the juggle.

Here are some tips:

1) You have to do everybody's job. My agent told me this during my last meeting. He actually said, "You know, Jen, you have to do everybody's job." Meaning think through the marketing, the cast appeal factor, etc. You can't ever just write what you have in your heart - unless your heart lines up with something people in the biz will recognize how to sell.

I would add something to "You have to do everybody's job." I would say - You have to do every body's job BUT never forget WHAT YOUR JOB actually is. Yes, it is important to think like a studio, director, marketing VP, producer - but you also have to know how and when to listen to the people that actually have those jobs. You are the writer. Know the game, but then let them teach you the rules.

2) Make everything you put your name on the best it can possibly be. There are no little jobs. Every project should be a passion project. Find a way to fall in love with your work. When you make it fun, it's fun for everyone and things move forward.

3) Read everything people give you right away. Waiting on notes is painful. As a writer you will spend too much of your life waiting by the phone like a teenager with a lust-crush. Don't do this to your fellow writers.

4) Take the time to celebrate the victories. Be them small (a good meeting) or large (a movie premiere). Good things happen few and far between - if you can appreciate them, they will sustain you through the awkward calls and the rejection.

5) Don't let the disappointments define you. Never look back. If a project is meant to happen, it will find its way. When people don't respond to a piece of material - move on. Let "your people" circulate it when they find an opening. Never look back - it will eat up time you could be using to write new stuff.

The script will soon be making its way to the market. And that is simultaneously a fast-paced and stagnate process - I may expand this blog to include the making of the movie I will be directing next year...

Happy writing!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Draft Three

Okay - so I'm on the verge of turning in draft three. This is more of a polish with a new tonal emphasis than a full-fledged draft - but to keep things less confusing for my international readership... let's call it draft three. (Personally it was vomit draft, draft one and now polish, but you see, confusing.)

So, after biting the bullet and stepping well out of my comfort zone, I was reminded by my golden winged manager that my most popular work has been the dramas I've written. So taking the "com" out of my rom-com and making it more of just a woman's journey (hello that was my assignment to begin with) isn't really like stepping out of my comfort zone as it is backing back into it. (Even the people whose English is their first language will have to re-read that sentence a few times.)

So, I'm now nearly the conclusion of that pass. I had a golf tournament (second place in the first flight) and the high holidays to attend (in no order of importance of course) - so it seems like this pass has taken forever. But actually butt-in-the-chair time, it's only been a week and a half.

So, fingers crossed. I hope to get some feedback soon to share. Happy writing!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Notes on Draft Two

Okay - so today I heard back from my beloved managers on Draft Two. I also woke up with a scorcher of sore throat. I usually get sick after I finish a project, but this time it arrived a little early. So, despite my throat closing up and my head feeling like it was on the receiving end of a mallet, the notes session went brilliantly.

I have written romantic comedies for some time. So what we discovered was that I was still leaning on those legs. The script has moved forward and we feel like we're a hefty character polish and some light remodeling away from being finished.

Well, finished enough to hand it to my agent and come up with a plan of attack.

What I need to do is embrace my goal and step out of my comfort zone and embrace the new genre I've attempted. I'm reading some scripts from the genre. I'm watching successful movies from the genre and I'm taking a step back.

When I feel justifiably distanced I will jump back in and knock it out of the park.

Happy writing and for those to whom it applies Shana Tova!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Turned In Draft Two

This last week was a fun and informative week. I had collected all my notes from all my readers and was going through them simultaneously. How I do this is probably just like you all do it. But, just in case you are in a "fixated on the process" place - I'll break it down into Frankenstein Steps. (Frankenstein Steps = Slow and cumbersome.)

First I retrieve my script from my reader and give them a hearty thanks. Then I try to listen very carefully to what their feedback is - if I'm meeting them in person. Most times I just get the script back. So I go through it page by page and read their comments. I always ask my readers to mark what they liked, thought was funny as well as anything that took them out of the story, they didn't buy or they didn't like.

Next I highlight the notes I find helpful whether I like them or not. (It takes years to like notes that you really didn't want to hear. Even after 20 scripts it still smarts, but suck it up - these people are trying to help you!)

When I've collected all my reads I try to find commonality among the notes. Are people getting hung up on the same beats? Maybe they react differently or suggest different ways to deal with it - but if there are consistent areas where people are stumbling it truly behooves you to pay attention.

So then I come up with a list of things to fix. Then I spread out all the scripts around my desk and on the desktop of my computer and I go through page by page.

Happily - once again - the feedback was very consistent. And there were very few issues. I rewrote some key scenes, changed the ending entirely and turned it back in to the managers. It is a long holiday weekend. For everyone else Labor day starts at 3PM on Friday and concludes Monday evening. In Hollywood it starts mentally on Wednesday and physically on Thursday evening.

So until Tuesday - Happy Labor Day. I will be laboring on my novel. Did I tell you that the managers really loved the first four chapters of The Novel? Now they want me to finish it - quickly.

So, I'm today I'm breaking out a plan of action - to finish the rough draft in 6-8 weeks. There are a couple of big Jewish Holidays and two major golf tournaments, a cousin's wedding, so I'm going to be kind to myself and shoot for Halloween. My first draft will be done by Halloween. (Or sooner!)

My son and I planted pumpkin seeds a while ago. So as the pumpkin grows so will my Novel. It's always good to set anchors. Happy Writing and I'll check in when I get the feedback from the managers next week!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Draft Two - Getting Notes Again

Okay, I've had a couple great days of good writing and I got some nice feedback on my novel. People seem to be as excited about it as I am. Nothing could be better.

But, in the screenwriting world here's what I've been through the last couple of days. My characters are running amok and spilling their guts. Which is great for me getting to know my characters, etc. but it's boring in a movie.

So what to do? How did I turn my scrambled egg surprise back into a lovely omelet?

As I went through what I had written, I referred back to my character arc and checked where my character was on her journey. Sometimes I found she was arcing too early - she's talking about stuff she shouldn't even realize yet. I either had to move the dialogue to later in the story or do something tricky.* Sometimes I found that I didn't need that dialogue at all and cut it. Other times, the dialogue fit.

Wow - thankfully - some of the new stuff actually was good dialogue that brought my two characters together. Well, that's what I hope. I'll know more after I get some notes this weekend. Until then, happy writing. I'll be charging ahead on my novel.

PS. I've had some emails from writers who are following the blog. Instead of answering each of them, let me remind everyone here. I started writing my 20th screenplay on July 1, 2010. I finished the first draft on August 2 and I'm now finishing the second draft at the end of August. I had a couple weeks of waiting for notes - which explains the gap in posting. If you want to read the entire journey you can start on July 1, 2010 the post is And So It Begins. Thanks for sharing. Hope this clears it up.

*It's a nice trick in a script to let your character get most of the puzzle worked out - only to miss that one big key piece that will bring it all together. Often, it's a helper character who "helps" her find that last piece. (They aren't called helper for nothing.)

Draft Two - Scrambled Eggs & Mercury Retrograde

I'm about half way through my rewrite and this is crucial week. Last week, my family was in town which seriously cut into my writing time, so this week it's time to redouble my focus. I'm not playing catch up, I'm just getting serious.

Now it's time for an analogy: If my script were a breakfast food.

My simple little first draft omelet has now turned into scrambled eggs. The omelet needed some more ingredients to make it perfect, but in the process of adding a little of this and a little of that everything lost its place. What I'm left with scrambled egg surprise.

It's not so bad. It's kind of a necessary step. What I'm doing is expanding character and what I've done is a common mistake. I front loaded all the information I have about my characters into the first opportunity they had to open their mouths. These characters are on a roll and they won't shut up. I have scenes of four page dialogues sequences. Yickes! That is really not going to fly.

I have to remind myself that just because I've made these great discoveries about my characters, I have to be patient and let it unfold. Just like you can't rush an omelet, you have to be gentle and give your story its own time to solidify.

But, for today, I'm allowing my characters to talk it out until I get through the whole script. This is letting them get it out of their system and letting me know more about them.

What I'll start tomorrow is shaping and editing. This is how I'll turn the scrambled eggs, with gobs of cheese and onions and tomatoes, mushrooms back into a fabulous omelet. More about that tomorrow.

PS. Mercury Retrograde is back for another three weeks. It's a great time to rewrite and go deeper with projects, to finish things up... So happy rewriting!

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Draft Two - Eat Pray Love - Spoiler Alert

Yesterday I did some research for my project. Since I am writing a women's inspirational film, I went to see the biggest one to come out in a decade - EAT PRAY LOVE.

I had read the book and frankly, I wondered what Oprah was smoking. I thought the first two sections were mildly interesting. The author's self-effacing commentary about her journey was entertaining. But, the third section tipped me right out of the boat. Her quest for love seemed so precious and self-impressed I wanted to puke. Eat, Pray, Puke is what I called it.

Now, the film. Here's the interesting part. The third section, the one I hated in the book - was by far the best part of the movie. Maybe it was Mr. Sexiness Javier Bardem, well he certainly didn't hurt, but this part of the movie actually held my interest. Why?

Well, I think it's because it was the only part of the film that held any external conflict. The rest of the film was about someone's internal struggle - which of course is easier to play out on the pages of a book where the person can tell you directly about their struggle. But, on film, even if you give in to numerous monologues, not so much.

Once we got into the love affair - there was a question hanging - will she realize that this man is the one. Despite her internal conflict, we also had a weak ticking clock of her departure. We had another human being who might at any time say "Listen lady, I'm so sick of your self-absorbed nonsense, go mantra yourself."

What I really wanted to see was a movie about Phillip's journey. How much more interesting of a story. A man, despite his macho background, falls in love and plays Mr. Mom. And he's great at it, but once the kids are gone, the wife loses interest and breaks his heart. He finds himself lost on an island, trying to heal and finds love with possibly the only person more wrecked than he is. She's gorgeous, but she's a hot mess in the life department. What do you do with that? Fall into the Mommy role again? Or find a balance where you both can exist, feeding each other as equals until you create a life together that is better than it's two parts? NOW - THAT I want to see.

Good thing my own project has both external and internal conflicts. The lesson here is that seeing other similar projects can teach you things. They can teach you what you want to emulate and what you want to avoid. So, thank you, Eat Pray Love.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Draft Two - Okay, Now I'm really getting started

Okay - so last week I had big plans. I compiled notes. I made a new copy of my script on my computer and labeled it Draft Two. And then I worked on my novel.

Because, in a perfect world you would put your draft on a shelf long enough to forget about all your darlings. Long enough to look at it with fresh eyes before diving in and redoing it. But, this isn't a perfect world. You never have enough time for that.

That said, I took a week and worked on something else. But here it is Monday and I've got to get cranking.

My managers also wanted me to go further with the romance of the idea. The part that is cool about what the main character experiences, expand that - that's why we're at this movie. So, I've got to look for the moments to open them up.

What's problematic about this request is that it's a challenge to bring conflict into a section that you're simply adding for wish fulfillment's sake. And I never add something to my script merely to fulfill one purpose. Also, without conflict you have nothing. So, this is a challenge. How to start?

Once again I'm going to look back at my tonal guideposts for clues. As explained in my post Stumbles Are Necessary - tonal guideposts are break downs of similar films. You can always look back at them to see what they did in a section where you are lost. Often this provides an insight, which in turn jogs and idea, which gets you writing again.

I'll let you know how I did with that tomorrow. Happy writing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Draft Two - Rewrite Day Two

Let me speak about one of the issues I'm addressing in the rewrite.

The antagonist in the story is unlikeable.

Yes, this is a valid note. Because to get us on board with the main character in this story we have to fall for the antagonist like she did. If we don't see why she would fall for him, then we will question if we know her, if we trust her logic for the rest of the story and that would be bad.

You don't question a character when you recognize their motivations as reasonable. That's the goal: To write a character that people will identify with or recognize. Not that the audience will have necessarily shared the same experiences with the character, but that they can understand and "go with" the character's choices based on the character you have drawn. The parts of the story you've woven in to show who these people are and what informs their decisions.

For example, your audience member might not pull a gun on a creep in a parking lot who is trying to rape her friend. But, if you've built a believable character who has suffered abuse in the past and who would do anything to protect her friend from the same, your audience will believe that the character would do just that. The audience will be invested. They may cringe in their seats and say "no, no" - and you hope they do - because then you've done your job. Your audience will be on board for the ride, even if that ride ends with your main characters driving off a cliff.

(If you don't know what I'm talking about then do yourself a favor and rent Thelma and Louis.)

My personal goals today (if you are invested in my actions are to finish off the chapters of my novel so I can turn them in tomorrow) and then start addressing my antagonist in the screenplay. I do this from an organic place, once I know what needs fixing, I read the script and make notes as to what bubbles up. Wish me luck.

Draft Two - Day One

After finishing the first draft in less than four weeks, I took a few days off to gather notes from readers and let their thoughts merge with my own ideas for the next draft.

Now, in my mind, the next draft is really the REAL first draft. (I call the first draft the vomit draft, because you just want to get through it quickly.) But, the "vomit draft" turned out to be pretty solid. So my next step is to get the script in good enough shape to send to my agent and come up with a plan to sell it.

The feedback I got was uniform. This is great news. When you have notes where one person wants you to go North and the other wants you to go West and still three more are debating between Northeast and East - that's when you know you need to make some significant changes.

When the notes come back echoing what you already were thinking, well happy day. Rewriting is still hard. Don't get me wrong.

In screenwriting, every time you change something it should naturally effect many more scenes and moments in the script. Since you aren't putting anything in your script that is simply serving one purpose - this is natural. You don't have jokes that are simply there for comic relief, they also reflect character. You don't have scenes that are there just to show how likable a character is - these scenes also have to move the plot forward. So when you change them you are also touching things that are connecting both forward and backward in your project. So, yes, it's like a puzzle and yes, it's darn tricky.

So when things get tricky - what do we do? We reach into our trusty bag of tricks. If the notes had come back indicating some sort of structural flaw then I would have broken out the 3x5 cards and my cork-board. The notes for this project concern deepening character, expanding moments and motivations and going further with the romance of the concept.

Getting started is always the hardest part. So how do I dive in?

First, I compile all my page notes and the notes from my readers onto a print out the script. My master copy of notes. I will re-read the script from the beginning keeping the notes in mind and jotting down any ideas that come to me to fix them.

Second, I duplicate the first draft, label it draft two and the date. At the end of that draft I type in bold all the "big" notes into a list. As I address these big issues in the rewrite, I delete them from my list. When there's nothing dangling after my "Fade Out," I know I've addressed the major issues.

If I was writing this on assignment I type up "what I heard" and how I plan on addressing it and email it back to the producers. Often, you will discover at this point whether you are on the same page or if you've heard two different things before you actually do the work. Thus saving yourself from writing in the wrong direction.

Friday, August 6, 2010

First Set of Notes

Poolside I received my first set of notes on The Project. Poolside always makes a notes session better. Just another little tip.

Actually, the notes were fantastic. I gave it to a friend who was in my target audience. Someone who I thought might identify with the character (and therefore be able to tell me when she ran afoul.) Someone who knew about the world where my script is set - so she qualified as a technical reader too.

The feedback was great. She found several areas where I could delve deeper. She even had suggestions as to what she wanted to know about the characters. She told me where she thought the characters might pause, open up as well as what was working.

Overall, she really enjoyed the script. As notes go, the fixes she suggested were needed are minimal in the grand scheme of things. There were some technical/logical problems that we found solutions for (again by the pool drinking wine - the best!).

But what was most exciting was that all of her notes wanted more of what I had started. A bad notes session is one where the person doesn't like your main character, was bored half way through, wasn't rooting for what your main character was trying to achieve. What I got was more along the lines of deepening subplots and drawing the finer points on motivation. Fantastic.

I am resisting the urge to call my managers with the ten ways my reader inspired me to make the draft better. I'm resisting the urge to qualify the draft they are reading with a "but I already know how to make it better." If they read my blog they'll know. (I seriously doubt they are reading my blog.) I'm going to instead trust that they know I wrote this extremely fast. I'm going to trust that the excitement I feel will still be with me when I hear their notes.

Then, I can get started on the rewrite. Until Monday peeps. I'm taking the weekend off. Happy Writing.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Day 28 - Active* Waiting For Notes

Update on The Project: I have in fact heard back from my fabulous managers and they are in fact reading over the weekend. They also want to read my novel pages - but I'm not sure if I'm ready to let them go, we'll see how I do today and tomorrow.

When all are ready then we'll shoot them off to my agent and then the ball will really get rolling. But, that's after notes, after revisions. We can all hope that those magic words come back, "It's great. We're ready." But, that's only happened to me once on a first draft. 1 out of 19. Not holding my breath. Even though... I enjoyed the read myself. I have no distance.

So what's great to do while you are waiting for notes. Besides, catching up on all the things that went out the window while you were writing (house, bills, friends, hair-cut)... it's a great time to read some writing books.

Here's a list of some my favorites:

Save The Cat by Blake Snyder
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri
On Writing by Stephen King
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

Of course, as in previous posts, I also can recommend the books from the UCLA Screenwriting department including Lew Hunter, Hal Ackerman and Richard Walters.

Active* (To writers reading is activity)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Day 27 - A Word About "Write What You Know"

Yesterday I sat down and read the first draft without interruption. And I really enjoyed the script. There were several typos, there were a couple of spots that I thought I could go deeper, but all in all I'm really happy with it.

I still haven't heard what my managers think - but as I said, they probably won't read it until this weekend. Which gives me time to work on the novel and the side-project I'm producing.

I am also going to give this rough draft to my technical readers. As you know, if you've been following me from Day One that I am NOT writing about "what I know."

"Write what you know" has been screenwriting advice since the dawn of time. But I believe this is totally misunderstood. In a nutshell, I would advise to "write what you can feel."

I have to know my character's emotional reality. I don't have to know her world - at first. The script I've been blogging about is set in a world that I know absolutely zilch about. For the rough draft I simply worked on getting the characters through the story. When I hit a spot where they had to do something I don't have a clue how to describe accurately I just tried to make it sound as good as possible. I faked it.

Now that I think the story and the characters and the structure are on-line, it's time to start locking down the technical stuff. Let the research begin. I've found several people who are absolutely passionate about the world my script is set in. I'm asking them to give me notes with their red pens.

If they give me some story notes as well, then great. I'm just going to ask them to flag anything that they didn't believe and if they could explain to me how to get it right for people who know about this like they do.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Day 26 - Finished. Fade Out. Now the Work Begins.

Something surprising happened yesterday. I got a late start, but managed to fend off the stress and just start. I had read through my first two acts over the weekend and made some small tweak-notes. I started with addressing those to get me warmed up and that lead me to rework the last scene I had written. Then I just kept going and before I knew what was happening - I was typing Fade Out.

And then I did something really insane - I turned it in.

All my trusted readers who aren't on my team are traveling and so I gave it to my great managers. They know it's a rough draft (best not to call it vomit when asking for notes). I felt like it was a good place to get a sweeping temperature read. So, we'll see.

Usually people in Hollywood don't read anything (unless it's something really pressing) until the weekend. They don't have the time. Maybe a slight draft of 93 pages (okay, I told you that was okay for the rough draft) might get a sneak peak. We'll see.

When they do get back to me, that's when the true work begins. I will stay open and listen without attachment. I will then step back and absorb. Then I'll plunge in and make the script rock.

In the meantime, I am charging ahead on my novel. My goal is to get the chunk I promised to show my agents finished by Friday. Now, if I can accomplish that - then I will most definitely take the weekend off. Or maybe I'll work on the project I'm producing and mentoring with a young and talented writer/director friend. Yeah, probably that.

Heck I have a 20 month old mouth to feed. Nothing like a little motivation! Happy Writing.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Day 25 - A New Attitude

Okay - I am BEHIND schedule today. I'm two hours into my work day and have not written a word. Sometimes Monday's roll like this. The only thing to do is just jump in and not think about how you promised to have the rough draft to your managers this week. Or the fact that you are nearly to the point where you are going to have to show your novel to your agency.

But here I am nearing completion on two goals and I'm faced with a completely new experience: Fear.

Normally, by the time I have finished my draft I have fallen so in love with my script that I rush to turn it in.

This time, something different is cooking in my head. I'm not exactly sure why, but, this time as I approach the finish line (well, the first of many finish lines) where I will show my work to my managers, I'm excited, but NERVOUS.

Strange. For me. An Aries. Invisible. Always looking forward. This is strange.

Normally, here's how this goes down. I get notes. Love the ones I agree with, hate the ones I don't. Internally I resist the notes I don't agree with, especially if I know deep down they are right. I hem and haw and grumble. I complain to my husband, who must think Hollywood is the worst place on the planet (when honestly I believe it abundantly populated by extremely intelligent and driven people). Then, I sit down and address the notes.

Ultimately, I come up with a new draft that I am so in love with that again I rush to turn it in because I believe in it even more. Rinse. Repeat.

This time it's different.

I'm curious as to what people will say. I love my script and the characters just as much as in projects in the past, but in some way I'm just staying open. Maybe, it's drivel? Maybe it's brilliant? Probably somewhere in between. But, this time I'm honestly looking forward to letting people in. And that honesty fills me with nervous excitement. To be honest. A little fear. But, nothing I can't handle. I'm still an Aries with Leo Rising. So bring it on.

Perhaps because I've been writing both my script and my first novel simultaneously my ego doesn't know which house to live in and went on vacation. All I know is that this is very interesting and new. And it feels right. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Day 24 - How Long Should My Script Be?

So, I have finished my second act, one day ahead of schedule and now it's full-steam ahead until I type those two magic words... FADE OUT.

(Fade Out is a bit old-fashioned, but I also like eating soft-boiled eggs in antique egg cups. Humor me.)

My goal is to turn in my vomit draft to my trusted readers next week. I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, in order to get ready for our readers, let's discuss length and format.

A first draft can come in a little wonky in the length department - that's perfectly okay. Sometimes when you get to the end your script comes in a lean and mean 95 pages. Sometimes, you're at a heavy 125. I've had both. Neither is what you want to end up with after your next draft - but for the vomit draft - well done!

The goal in this rough, first draft is to finish. I highly recommend celebrating this moment. In this business the good times are very good, but they are also few and far between. To stay sane and out of rehab, I recommend commending yourself at every worthy occasion. Finishing your first draft is one of these moments. I try to drink a glass of champagne, or go out for a nice meal. I will also take the weekend off.

Why? Because even though you've come a long way, the hard work has just begun. Writing is rewriting. There's a very small window of time between when you finish a draft and when the notes come pouring in. This is your time to relax and bask in the delusion that the script's perfect and you are a genius. That window will slam closed on your fingers soon enough. But, for now... Enjoy.

Eventually you'll want your finished product to come in around 110 pages. Before the e-reader became the reading device of choice, there was a thickness by which screenplays were judged. As a former development executive, I'll admit "thick scripts" often went to the bottom of the read pile. I wonder now if people scan to the end of their pdf files to see what the total page count comes in at?

Just to be safe, try to hit 110.

Reading on a computer screen is here to stay - so I recommend reading your own script off the computer, too. (In addition to printing out pages and marking them up with ink.) Because the look of a script - how it meets the readers eye - is important.

Here's a quick list of what to do to make your script look right.

1. If you are a beginner, get your hands on some screenplays and check out their format. A script in Germany will look a lot different from a script in Hollywood - so imitate the market you're trying to sell to. (TV scripts are another ball of wax - but the same rules apply. If you are writing a single camera comedy - get a copy of a similar show. Etc.)

There are great resources online - but also the WGA library and the Academy Library have fantastic collections if you happen to be in Los Angeles. If not, there's a great on-line site where you can download all manner of scripts called Drew's Script-o-Rama.

2. Don't leave a word dangling by itself, forcing the sentence onto a second line.

There are a million ways to say the same thing, so pick one that won't leave one word stranded. Less is always more. Readers hate to read. Remember that. Readers love to be swept up in your story, make them forget they are reading. Then, they'll love you.

Paragraphs in screenplays should never be longer than five sentences. You might notice that most of this blog is chopped up into paragraphs of five sentences or less. Old habits die hard.

3. Don't overwrite your description. I am WAY guilty of this. Save it for your novel. If you have to explain what your character is thinking or feeling in the action - then you need to rewrite that scene. Find a way to show it. And I don't mean have your character talk to herself or a goat (which I just did yesterday in my own script). I'll fix it, don't worry. This is the vomit draft!

4. You don't have to use proper grammar if your style choice really drives your point home. But, too much of a gimmick really gets annoying, beware.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Day 23 - Writing Anyway

Checking in from the end of the second act. I'm writing a part of the script that I just don't like. My attention is wandering. I'm current on all my bills and shampooing the carpets is really sounding like a fabulous plan for the morning.

But, NO!

Instead of darting away from my uncomfortable feeling - instead of avoiding - I need to welcome this discomfort, this dislike, this I'm on the verge of a "I don't wanna" tantrum, as an invitation.

Why don't I like this section? Because it feels silly. And even though a little dash of humor ALWAYS helps*, silly and meandering is not what needs to be happening right now. Tension should be mounting. Obstacles rising.

So what's missing? I'm not sure, but here's where I'm going to look right after I publish this post. CONFLICT. External and internal. Perhaps she's only dealing with external conflicts and I've let the internal conflicts slide. Perhaps that's why this section is feeling slapstick-y.

The point is - the carpets can wait another day or two. Stay with your work. Don't go into denial about what's not working - be thankful that you have an internal sensor to keep you sharp.

*A note about humor. Humor to some measure always works. Even in drama, even in horror, even in action. Case in point - Life is Beautiful (humor in drama) Interiors (no humor in drama). (If you take a Woody Allen class in film school, don't miss Interiors -it's horrible. There's not a single moment of levity. It starts tragic and goes straight North.) Which film allowed your to feel more? That's what I thought!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Day 22 - What's Important About The End of Act Two

If you refer to the printable story grid as discussed on Day Four you will see two important beats nearing the end of Act Two.

In my current project I am writing these scenes today. What is happening in my script is that the main character gets an opportunity to find love, and believing she's learned her lesson charges full steam ahead -- in the wrong direction.

When the other shoe drops (and she loses it all; end of act two) she realizes that she wasn't using the right tools. The right tools are usually covered up by "all the things the main character is afraid of" and naturally that's not the first, or even second place your character wants to look.

But ultimately, after all else fails, there's no other way around it. Because of everything else that has happened in the script (character growth specifically) your main character will now be able to face that fear and succeed. That's your act three in a nutshell.

Let's look at Jaws (it's in instant play on Netflix and an all-time great movie in regards to character arc and I'm sure not to spoil it for anyone).

As a refresher - the POLICE CHIEF is afraid of the water - actually he's just plain afraid of the chaos of life - and water symbolizes* his greater fear. He's moved his family to Amityville Island to try to protect them from the violence and insanity he's witnessed as a cop in the big city. What could go wrong? Well, violence and danger returns in the form of a super shark.

In the second half of the second act, the Problem Returns Stronger when the shark eats someone right in front of the Chief's son - who was supposed to be safe in the lagoon. Now tourism is going to be dead unless they kill that shark. So our chief Battles Back Using The Wrong Tools. He hires Quinn to kill the shark.

This isn't a bad plan, it's not wrong in the sense that it isn't logical or a practical next step. It's the "wrong tools" because again our hero is still clinging to his fears. He's not facing them himself, he's hiring out. He gets on the boat, which shows growth, but the entire time he's looking the quickest way back to shore and safety. This is where the Chief delivers the classic, "We're going to need a bigger boat" line. This line is so memorable because it is exactly the type of thing we expect the chief to say, because he is a consistently drawn (realistic) character.

This all lends itself to set up a great climax in the third act where in fact, our hero is in the water, battling the shark himself. With quick thinking and good aim he blows the shark to kingdom come. And what is the closing image? The chief is swimming in the water back to shore.

Viola - happy writing!

*More about symbols and theme after we finish the vomit draft. DON'T think about that now. Not yet.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Day 21 - Approaching the End of Act Two

The end of act two will land somewhere around page 80-85. I try to break my second act into twelve beats before the midpoint and twelve beats after the mid-point. In my current project, after hitting the mid-point, I looked at my outline and I'm feeling like I'm running a little long. But, this is the vomit draft - and so I am marching ahead. I'm taking note, in case I hit a scene that feels redundant, but I'm charging on. Since I'm on track and happy with how the story is progressing, it would just be procrastinating to try to re-org now.

My goal is to hit the end of the second act by this Friday. This will be a challenge because Tuesday I play in the finals of the President's Cup which will undoubtedly be followed by compulsory celebratory drinking. But, since I've looked ahead at my week, I've also made a plan as to where I can catch up on missed time. (No "So You Think You Can Dance" for me. Sorry, Kent will have to make it on his own this week.)

So, twenty-five-ish pages to go. Approximately 10-12 scenes. Four days of writing. That's about 6 pages a day. About three scenes a day. No problem!

Here's where I have to admit that all this bravado is bullshit. Because this is a crucial part of the script. There's a lot of stuff that has to happen in a short amount of time. Your stakes have to keep rising, the characters have face set-backs, where you think they are going in the wrong direction, but are actually growing along their arc. It's a very, very, very important and difficult stretch. Wish me luck.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Day 20 - Are Your Characters Surprising You?

I am now on page 60 of my script and I'm really having fun. I have no idea at this point if it's working or not. But, a couple days ago, the characters started walking around and pulling stunts that surprised me. And, yes, this happens. It's not a sign of a psychotic break.

Once you know your characters, you'll be writing a scene where your main character is supposed to agree to leave town with a friend. Suddenly, your main character and her best friend get into an argument over something that happened in high school and the friend takes off without her. In her car.

Well, that's a fine kettle of fish. The scene is great. There's conflict and a lot has been revealed about your characters, but your main character still needs to get out of Dodge.

When something like this happens - enjoy it! This is actually a very good thing. When your characters start wanting to do things that you previously had not thought of - that's when you know your characters have dimension. You can't force it and it doesn't always happen. You just have to keep writing and have faith.

Sometimes, after all the fun has revealed itself you have to put it in context of your grander scheme (does it mesh with your story?) and do some adjustments. But, usually your characters know exactly what they should be doing when they start running amok.

And P.S. Don't you just love the word "amok"?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Day 19 - Researching Your Story

Okay, I know you are all holding your breath waiting to hear if I pulled it off. And the answer is - yes, I won my match and have made it into the finals of the President's Cup.

Oh, you were wondering if I hit my deadline of writing to my mid-point? Truthfully, I'm close, but not quite there.

And here's why - a dreaded little word. Research.

I broke one of my cardinal rules for my vomit draft*. Never research. Just write. In my current project much of the action takes place in an environment I don't know Jack about. I have friends who do and I've questioned them a little to get started on terminology, asked for pertinent websites, etc. Most importantly, I've begged them to read the rough draft with a red pen. (I don't actually recommend calling it the "vomit draft" when trolling for readers.)

So, why the no research rule? Because it's way way way too juicy and tempting to spend hours, days, weeks doing research when there are pages to write. The vomit draft is for discovering story and character and character and story. You're finding the drama, the conflict. It makes no difference if it's a B-20 bomber or an AK47 or Bengal Tiger. It's a war plane, a gun and a cat with big teeth. If the drama isn't on the page - it won't matter how accurate you were about how horses are born or anything else. Movies are headlines and conflict is not in the details. Not yet. We'll get there. Be patient.

Okay - so why am I only on page 50 and not 55? (And don't say it's because I was playing golf.) It's because I let myself get worried about the particulars of a scene sequence and the next thing I knew half my writing day had been spent emailing experts and reading Wikipedia. Oy...

And you know what? I'm still not sure about the details. What I am sure about is that my main character is about to step way outside her comfort zone. Now will she realize it isn't as scary as she thought it would be or will she fall on her face? I'm still figuring that out. I'm leaning towards the latter as (big clue) the movie is only HALF way done. If she realizes what she's supposed to learn already then we might as well throw on the lights, scrape the popcorn off our boots and head home.

One more point about research - it's a great thing to do before jumping into the rewrite of your first draft. It allows me to think about my story with a different brain lobe. Okay, I'm no brain expert - but it feels more analytical than emotional. But more about rewriting and your legitimate first draft when we get there.

*Vomit Draft (Explained On Day One). The first rough draft of a script that you write fast, without thinking, throwing everything in that gets you to the next scene, even if it makes you want to puke.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Day 18 - Crisis Point

In honor of Howard Suber's birthday, and since I'm on schedule to write to my mid-point today, I thought we'd discuss what Howard Suber has dubbed the "crisis point." Howard Suber is like the Wooden of the UCLA Film School. He has a legion of dedicated followers called Suberites. A new crop of Suberites are born each time Suber teaches a class. Deservedly so.

I took Howard's class back in 1998 when I was a very young film student. I took copious notes and took everything he said as seriously as the word of God. The class I took analyzed why films work and why they don't. One brilliant point Howard shared with us was his observation that at the 60 minute point the main character takes an active step either toward or away from his goal. (Now, I'm remembering this from 1998 - so for the finer points - seek out the man himself. He has written books and posted many things on the internet. Here's a link to Howard Suber's The Power Of Film.)

While taking Howard's class, I applied everything I learned about the "Crisis Point" to the script I was writing at the time. And to make a long story short, it didn't work. I asked Howard why, why, why had his crisis point forsaken me? And what he told me was one of the greatest quotes ever. He said, "What you've done is make a perfect landing at the wrong airport."

At the time I was way too insecure to admit I had no idea what that meant. So I muddled on and on. And over time, over the last 19 scripts of my career, here's what I've come up with about the "Crisis Point."

Howard is absolutely correct. If you watch any good film at 60 minutes the main character acts. But, just because the character takes a step at minute 60 doesn't mean that the writer can force a beat to fall there. If you are structuring everything else, including your character arc correctly (See Part One and Part Two), then Howard Suber's Crisis Point is a naturally occurring byproduct.

It's great fun to go back and see after you've written your draft if your script actually has one. If it does, this is a great clue that you're cooking with gas and in great shape. If it does not, then buddy, you'd better start looking for false beats and wrong turns.

So, after all these years my UCLA education is still paying off. It's still drawing me toward critical thinking and helping me improve my craft. Thank you Howard Suber and Happy Birthday.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Day 17 - Writing A Good Love Story

This is going to be a short post - because I am late to get started today after shooting a sweet 78 in the third round of the President's Cup. Nice.

In my current project I have just written the first scenes with my "love interest." He is brought onto the stage just after the act one break. This is usually where a romantic subplot belongs when you are writing anything other than a romantic comedy. In a romantic comedy you have to introduce both of the characters up front because the story is about their path to love.

In other stories where part of the main character's journey is finding love, you can delay introduction.

But what is key to writing any love story is giving the two people involved something to learn from each other. And if you can make what they have to teach each other mirror images of what they need to learn themselve - well, Eureke.

In my current project, the main character is controlling and has to learn to let go. She has to learn that no matter how much planning she does, she can't sidestep all the bad stuff that happens in life. If she tries, she'll only succeed in missing out on a lot of good stuff; she'll be limiting her possibilities.

The love interest can show her the way because his problem is the opposite. He's got "go with the flow" down - but he's doing it to such an extreme what he's really doing is running away from the bad stuff as well. So the gift she can give him is the ability to commit, to be vested.

Everyone is arcing and everyone's arc is pushing the other out of the comfort zone. Pretty cool how that works? I hit on this revelation over a birdie putt on number five. Nice.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Day 16 - The Writing Process

A good routine is essential not only in golf, but in writing and anything else where you must have consistency to succeed. That said, the key to having a successful routine is finding what works for you and sticking with it, even when it occasionally doesn't work for you.

Young writers always obsess about other writer's processes. I did. I used to ask everyone where they wrote, what kind of program they used, did they ever hangout in coffee shops with their laptops? I listened and then I tried it for myself. I went to coffee shops, I wrote at my dining room table, I bought cork boards and chalk boards, I tried long-hand on yellow legal pads. I played music that went along with the soundtrack of the film I was writing. I tried to write warm up pages, timed-writings, standing on my head to get the blood flowing. If I heard or read about a writer's routine, I gave it a whirl.

And then I started to pay attention to what I actually just plopped into on the days that I turned out good work.

And I found that for me, I needed Seattle. I needed a rainy day, a hot mug of caffeine and a room so silent I could hear the rain tapping on the roof.

Okay, I guess I should tell you - I don't live in Seattle. I live in sunny Southern California where right now the heat and light is making me feel like doing anything, ANYTHING, but write.

Also, I needed to spend about an hour screwing around. Paying bills, doing dishes, organizing my desk. With intermittent bursts of looking at the blank page I needed to attack.

So my ideal writing situation was a day where it was raining (in Southern California) and I had an entire day to write undisturbed giving me enough time to screw around for an hour before getting started. Yeah, right. Let me tell you how often that happened for me in the beginning. In the beginning, I was working an 60 hour a week job in development, reading an avalanche of scripts each weekend.

I had to accept that if I wanted to be a writer I needed to write. And I had to come up with something that worked for me and stick with it.

You must find your own routine that works for you for, but if you can glean any clues from my process here it is:

1. Get large caffeinated beverage. (Hopefully you aren't a caffeine addict and can skip right to step two.) Close the blinds and shut the door to my office and I play my Rain For Relaxation softly on my iTunes. This is my simulated Seattle.

2. Make a realistic goal* and write it down. (Today I am going to write bad version of 4 scenes on the script and put all my edits I made in the novel on the computer in preparation to move forward on that tomorrow.)

3. Start. When I get stuck, I allow myself five minutes to pay that bill or check Facebook, but then I look back at my goal list and start.

4. At the end of my work day, if I don't complete something on my goal list I put it on the top of the list for tomorrow. The next day, I finish that before making a new list. I do not want to pile on. (And it's really satisfying to cross things off the list, isn't it?)

5. When I'm done. I am done. I can now leave and do whatever I want guilt free. This is my reward for meeting my goal. I do not try to do "extra" work unless I am really inspired and having fun. If that's the case - I go, go, go.

*Realistic Goals - this is really the trick. I used to always set myself up for failure by putting down way too much. If you are consistently not meeting your goals, then reduce them until you can get into a routine of finishing what you set out to do. If you breeze through your goals and still have hours on the clock, day after day, then step up the challenge a bit.

Secondly, to make this all work you need to carve out time to write. Make your time as consistent and sacred as possible. (My schedule as a full-time writer is usually six hours a day six days a week Sunday-Friday. With additional time not behind the computer before I go to bed to do research, reading or movie/tv viewing - all part of the job.) Sometimes, family obligations wipe out Sunday - but Monday through Friday are set in stone.

But, I didn't start off having the luxury of all this time to write. Who does? My point being, no matter how busy you are - even if you can only manage 20 minutes, three times a week to write - that's your sacred time. Stake it off and fight for it. It might take you a year to write a rough draft, but you'll get there if you trust your routine and you work on becoming consistent. After all, the year is going to pass anyway. I'd rather have something to show for it than nothing.

You can't wait to be inspired. You have to develop a routine to write through the muck until you uncover the inspiration. These are the skills you need to do this for a living, so don't wait for Seattle.