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.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Day 15 - Trailer Moments And Selling Your Script

Okay - here we are Act Two A. Act two is separated by the mid-point. (See The Printable Story Grid) Before the mid-point your character is still in learning mode. We've left the set-up of the first act where we have established what is wrong with this person's situation - and now, the situation has changed. That's the act break. The story spins in a new direction. The problems, however, are still with us.

This is where the fun begins. The term "trailer moments" might be a little passe, but it's a great term to communicate what your act two a needs.

Act two is where your main character is tested by the premise of the story. Stop and think about your favorite hit movies. Check out the trailer for The Hangover. Most of the hilarious moments are found after the guys wake up in act two - hungover and missing the groom who is due back in LA to get married. The story has taken a new direction and now we get to experience what Blake Synder called "the promise of the premise." The premise here being The Hangover.

In my own script, my main character thought she was starting a new life, but at the beginning of the second act low-and-behold, her life as taken a 180. Now, I have to make sure the premise tests her and makes her a bit miserable - so that she'll grow. Like in life, we usually grow from our mistakes. Mistakes also happen to be hilarious in comedies and fascinating in other genres. Think about in a horror film when the girl is going to go in the room where the scary thing is waiting. It's a mistake, but it's also the good part; why we bought a ticket.

So, don't be nice to your characters. Remember to put in the stuff that makes you squirm to even write - that's why people will watch. That's why someone will buy your script. Another neat tool - if you find yourself wondering what is my premise - is draw your movie poster. If you can see your poster - then you've got a handle on your premise.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Day 14 - How to Get The Most Out Of Getting Notes

Today was supposed to be the first day I worked on the second act. Instead I decided to get a little distance from the script. (Okay, it was the second day of the President's Cup. Where I took down the club champion in an impressive come back from behind victory.) Later in the day, I also worked on my novel and I sent the first act of my screenplay to my Trusted Writing Buddy for notes.

I highly recommend finding a Writing Exchange Buddy who will tell it like they see it. This person should be a writer who knows at least as much as you do (hopefully more) and/or be a lover of movies.

What you are looking for in the optimal writing exchange buddy is someone who will read quickly and with the right amount of attention.

What is the right amount of attention?

Actually, just barely enough would be the correct answer.

You need to find someone who is busy with their own work and their own life. Someone who has so many pots boiling they forget what they're cooking half the time. Why? Because that's about as much time as any person in the industry will be able to give your script. Producers, agents, studio execs, managers are all overworked and short on time. If you can grab your busy Writing Exchange Buddy's attention and keep it, then you know you're on the right track to submitting it everyone else.

In addition to your Writing Exchange Buddy, you will want to give out your first draft to several people for feedback before you give it to anyone who counts. (E.G.: Producers, Agents, Managers, Actors, Directors, Studio Execs, etc.)

The most important thing for you to find out is if the script is hanging together and what parts are lame and boring. It's important to know what parts the reader believed and where they didn't follow the main character's logic. You're also listening for what rocked your reader's world. You're listening for WHERE. Where are the problems and where are the golden parts that make you grateful for being alive.

What you don't really need at this point is HOW to fix things.

A lot of people get lost telling you how to fix it. But, they don't know that the producer wants A or the actor who's attached forbade you from doing B. They don't know about the five drafts of the treatment where you tried what they are suggesting and determined it wasn't the way to go.

Instead of getting frustrated or God-forbid defensive, here's what you need to do: Listen hard to what they are saying.

It's what you are listening for that's the key distinction. Instead of memorizing their ideas on how-to fix your script problems, simply note where in the script they are applying the band-aids. This is a fabulous clue as to where you've run off course.

Don't argue. Don't point out that producer A told you not to do that very thing they suggest. That doesn't get either of you or your script anywhere. Just listen and follow the clues they are so generously giving you.

**Occasionally, a reader will give you a how that helps. Don't get me wrong. Notes and the thinking they generate are exactly what takes your script from "vomit" to "spec sale." Most often times readers who can peg what needs to be done and also provide clues to "how you can fix your script" will become your Writing Exchange Buddy. That's how you know they're special.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Day 13 - Act One Finished On Schedule

Yesterday was the first round of the President's Cup - the match play championship at our golf club. I can report a victory in the first round, but this is a writing blog - and so let me share how sometimes doing something completely outside of writing can keep you focused.

I was pretty nervous during the match and so I tried to focus on my breathing. That never works. I could Eat, Pray and Love myself around the world and there's no way my brain would ever focus on the breath. I needed bigger guns. I needed to focus on something I could obsess about. My script.

As I was nearing the end of the first act that little voice in the pit of my stomach had been trying to get a message through. I didn't want to hear it. I had a schedule to maintain. But, on the golf course, I finally heard it loud and clear. I had been writing my script like a romantic comedy.

This was a problem because the script isn't a romantic comedy. I'm supposed to be working on something closer to a drama, something that will tug on the heartstrings. So far, all my scenes felt very surface and funny, but where was the emotion? Or, where was the set up for emotion to be had later?

If I need to go deeper, then I need to go deeper into character. Between shots, I started to let my mind ponder what I loved about my main character? What made me like her and stay interested and root for her?

Well, I missed a tap in six incher after the little voice in the pit of my stomach answered, "Not so much." There wasn't anything about my main character that I liked? And I'm the one writing it?! Danger Will Robinson.

Okay - I'm six holes in to a tight match that's all even. I'm going to be safely away from my computer for at least three more hours. This gave me space to actually stop the denial and let this unpleasant idea settle in. I don't like my main character. There were moments, things she said, that of course I related to - but where was the compelling stuff?

Being on the golf course helped me noodle on it without being too close to the actual script. When I get in front of my well crafted scenes, I can trick myself into not seeing the flaws. But, standing on the tee of number twelve gave me the distance I needed.

I could just invite my character in to the scenes I had written and try out different ways the scene could play out. What was her attitude? What if she wasn't pissed in the scene with her sister, but so used to her crap she just ignored it? What did that say about her and their past. Stuff like that.

I closed my opponent out on 16 and couldn't wait to get off the course and back to my computer. I went back and added a few things I had brainstormed about. Today, I charged ahead and low and behold my first act ended on page 25.

So, onward. Act Two begins tomorrow. And just a warning: This is the hard part.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Day 12 - Writing The Scene You Hate

Okay - I'm very close to finishing my first act. So far I've written one scene I don't even understand, several fairly decent scenes and two "please let me wake up with something better" scenes. But, today I am battling with that scene I really don't want to write.

This scene will appear once or twice or maybe even five times in this process. I know what I have to write - it's right there in my outline. But, for whatever reason, I would rather go to the dentist.

What I've learned is that there usually IS a reason why this happens. And, shockingly, it has nothing to do with the fact that I'm lazy and undisciplined. What it usually comes down to is I don't know what the scene is about.

In this instance, it's a scene where the main character is supposed to be having a good time. What could scare me about writing that? Is it because I wouldn't know a good time if it tickled me on the ass? Hardly. Is it because she's participating in something I can't even imagine taking place? No. I'm pretty familiar with the ground where she stomps.

What's blocking me is that I haven't zoned in on where the conflict is in the scene. What's going to make it interesting? What's going to add that little bit of surprise? Well, what if I add her husband into the mix and give him a competing agenda? What if what she was looking forward to doing- turns out to be a big let down? Now, she's got a husband going against her externally and her own disappointment internally. What if she doesn't want to let the husband know that she's not having the great time she expected? What if, she would rather eat dirt than let him have the privilege of saying "I told you so." Now, that's a scene I'm excited about writing.

Find the conflict and you'll find your window.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day 11 - Interesting Discovery

So, I'm doing dishes. Doing dishes is now part of my precious thinking and dwelling time. Gone are the days when I can spend uninterrupted hours behind my computer. A little thing called life came up and bit me on the butt. It will happen to all of you eventually. Lucky bastards. Because the messy stuff that keeps us from writing, is the reason, it turns out, why we are writing.

I started writing for all the wrong reasons. I wanted money and fame and glory. I chose writing because I was good at it. But, guess what? After my first big spec sale, I hit the biggest depression of my life. I got everything I ever wanted. I was in the trades. People at my bank started giving me stuff for free. All my friends were green with envy. I picked up checks at restaurants and drank very expensive wine. So why was I so low that I could barely drag myself out of bed? Because, I had got what I wanted and it didn't fix a damn thing. It didn't fill me up. It didn't make me happy.

Now, years down the road. I've had my fair share of ups and downs. Nine out of the nineteen scripts I've written I've been paid for. If this project sells, then I'll be 50-50 - and that's actually pretty good. I once heard that 1 out of 5 projects sell - so, I've been lucky.

But, the reason why I'm still at it, ten years later, when a lot of my buddies from film school and beyond have fallen by the wayside is this: I discovered the real joy in writing.

It has nothing to do with what happens with the project when it's done. Sometimes they sell, sometimes they don't. Sometimes the project you least expected turns out to be one of your proudest achievements and others you were sure of turn out to be embarrassing. You have no control over any of it. So, focus on what you can control and let the rest go.

I can't tell you what makes it real and good for you. You're on your own journey. But, for me, I write because it stretches me. Because it gives me satisfaction, because when I'm cooking on a scene I'm connecting with something greater than myself (I do not take sole ownership of my inspiration).

Now, when I get a few hours to write, I focus. I have to. And there's never enough time, between my family, the housework, the shopping, friends, my golf addiction, the baby, the baby, the baby (if you have one you know the baby is time suckage on a new and improved scale) - there's just not enough hours in the day. Never. And there never will be again.

I laugh at all the time I used to waste. I appreciate all the time I don't waste now. I've become an efficient writing machine. I'm proud of that. But, what puts me in the chair now is a much better motivation. I'm participating in who I am. I am also providing for my family. I'm no longer trying to get rich and famous.

I get it now. And I feel full, happy and complete. I hope your writing brings you to where I'm at one day. It's a fun ride.

That said, I also hope that when I'm done with this project I can post about it selling for a ridiculous sum, take you through the rewriting process at the studio, right up to the premiere. I've grown, I haven't become Ghandi. Jeeze...

Day 10 - Act One Or Bust

Okay - it's Sunday and the World Cup is about to start.

This week I have two goals in mind. Write to my act one break in my screenplay by Day 14 and write 20 new pages in my novel.

The major act breaks are always my favorite scenes because they are usually where I have the clearest focus on my story. They are the beats that come to me first. So as I approach the end of act one - let me share with you a list of things you will want to accomplish in the first 25-30 pages of your script.

In the outline the first act will have ten story beats. Sometimes you'll have a sequence of short scenes that equal one beat, only count these as one beat. A beat is something that happens that moves the story forward - by revealing character through action. In the first act these beats should pull double-duty and not only reveal character, but also set up your story.

There really shouldn't be any scene in your first act that only serve one function. Right now I have a "place holder" scene which is introducing the main character's spouse and showing "why they got married." This scene is merely there to show the good side of the hubby, before everything falls apart. Hopefully when people read this scene they will like the hubby. This is important because later I will make them hate. And I need the audience at this point to be fooled along with my main character. But, I'm not satisfied with the scene because it is only accomplishing that one purpose. It feels empty.

What I have to do is go back and set up some issues to play out later, set up some attitudes that can be changed, set up some bold assumptions to be undone. Also, I need to reveal something new about my main character. That's a lot of work for a one and a half page scene, but that's the challenge.

You can't let clever dialogue trick you. (And it will try to trick you. Look at me, I'm so funny, I can stay even though I'm not pulling my weight. Bull!)

Now, I say "place-holder" because I'm not going back NOW to fix this. I have simply made a note to myself and I'm moving forward. There are many discoveries to take place on this journey. Who knows, by the time I finish the vomit draft I might start the entire story in a new place in the next draft. Or maybe not. Maybe this scene will survive. Maybe not.

At this point, my job is to keep going.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Day 9 - Invest in Your Back

Okay - so today I only accomplished about three pages of novel (and I'm pretty sure it was crap, but I'm too afraid to look) and even less progress on my script. I thought about my character, I futzed around on a couple scenes. I think I wrote one new scene and I'm sure I hate it.

It wasn't for lack of trying. Believe me. Some days your muse is on vacation and there's not a jelly donut in the world that can coax him back.

So, here are two important things I can speak on today.

1) When I get back to work next week, I will not try to play catch up. Catch up will drive you crazy and you'll stop writing. If a day comes along and you don't hit your goal all you can do is promise yourself to try to do better tomorrow.

2) Part of the reason why I didn't get everything I wanted accomplished is because I went to see my chiropractor. This isn't an excuse. Don't get me wrong. It's a part of my process, like twenty minute think-naps and collecting composition notebooks I rarely write in, but love toting around just in case.

Now, I'm from the mid-west and we, as a people, don't believe in chiropractors or any remedy found in a health store. So for most of my life I shunned going. Even now, I rarely let the doc "crack" me. But, if you are a serious writer - you are going to develop serious back problems if you are not careful.

For years, I thought that I had A.D.D. (and my former writing partner probably did too) because I could not sit behind my computer for more than ten minutes. It was physically impossible. It wasn't until I invested in a good chair from Relax The Back that I realized the reason I couldn't sit still was because I was in pain. So I bought a chair that was the price of a small car. Something like this: Aeron Chair - Highly Adjustable Graphite Frame - with PostureFit - Carbon Classic (Large) by Herman MillerOther Ergonomic chairs can be found for less. Just make sure you can adjust the seat and arm height.

The bottom line is that it didn't have to be that hard.

At the ripe old age of twenty-four I had already got myself so knotted up massages didn't make a dent. So hear me now and thank me later. Make your writing space ergonomic. Get the keyboard at the right height. Get a good chair. Make sure you are looking straight on at your monitor, not down or up. Get up every twenty minutes and stretch.

If you're comfortable you'll be able to stay at it longer. And it's a heck of a lot easier to lose yourself in your writing when you don't feel like you have a knife between your shoulder blades.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Day 8 - Falling in Love With Your Character

Okay. I'm now on page 15 of the script. It's bad version - but there's momentum. I need to go back and shuffle things around. I have some scenes in the wrong order*, but the characters are coming to life. I'm not letting myself spend too much time on editing, because there's too much to discover before I will have any clue how to really fix anything.

I realized today that what I was mainly doing (by overwriting my scenes and letting my characters take center stage and shake their groove thing without me reigning them in) was falling in love with my characters.

Writing is a left-brain/right-brain endeavor. You plan and plot, but just as importantly you have to crawl inside and find the intangible gunk. Today was a success because I got a little closer to understanding my window into my main character.

All characters you will ever write are you.

Sorry. True.

It's the writer's job to find the part you relate to in the character to give it soul. It gets tricky on assignments. (Well, it's always tricky, let's be honest.) It's trickier on assignment when you have to find a character to service a plot that didn't come from you and what you're thinking and experiencing. But, eventually, even in characters you don't like, you will find that little opening to crawl through and find yourself. It might be a part of yourself you don't really want to look at, but do. Try. I won't tell. Explore. Stretch yourself. Over the long haul, this is what keeps writing for hire exciting. It keeps writing exciting.

*You see why I called outlines and beat sheets and the rest of it tools. If you are a slave to your outline you will plot yourself right out of your story. It's a tool. It's something to get you to the next step. But, you are the captain of this ship - so if you need to drop anchor and go back and change things up, re-outline - DO IT. It's a tool. You are in control. (For now.)

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Day Seven - Stumbles are Necessary

So already one work week in and I hit a stumbling block. Despite getting no sleep the night before (thank you, Loyal Canine Companion), I managed to write to my inciting incident. Good, right? No. Not so good. It turned up on page 6. Page six is way too early. I haven't had enough time to establish my main character for anyone to care that she's received a call to action, a life-changing opportunity, a major kink in her plan. What did I do wrong?

I had no idea. I was tired and cranky and really unhappy that my perfect outline had let me down so early on in the process. (And, there's the point that I'm blogging about my process and therefore on the brink of totally humiliating myself.)

I didn't panic, binge drink or even hit the donut shop. (Five years ago you would have found me in Winchells, drinking from a paper bag and talking to myself along with the other sweat-wearing writers often mistaken for homeless in Santa Monica.)

This time around I went back to the bag of tricks I keep tucked in my right hand drawer. Squeezed in on top of the pile (I am really disorganized in places guests don't open) I found my tonal comparisons.

Tonal comparison breakdowns are a trick I learned about at UCLA. I believe it was from the Werb/Colleary class. I can't be sure, because I never got into the Two Mike's class, but a friend let me in on their basket of cool tools just the same. That said, a tonal comparison is where you write down every beat of several films that remind you in some way of your project. It shows you the structure and pace. It's also handy to refer back to whenever you get lost. And man was I lost. On page six.

Thanks to my tonal guide posts (I usually do two per project) I realized that my ducks were already in a row. I simply hadn't gotten to my inciting incident yet. What I thought was the inciting incident was just an example of demonstrating issues/problems. It did not change the direction of the story. It was not the incident. I had to keep writing.

My actual inciting incident was a few scenes down the outline. Once I recognized the inciting incident for what it was - it was obvious. It even contained the old classic "a letter arrives" albeit it arrived via digital age technology.

Here's the point: Even though I have now done this twenty times, I still run into unforeseen issues. You might spend a day flat on your face or wallowing in doubt. You might find yourself at Winchells once and a while. It's okay. Have a jelly donut for me. Eventually you will embrace these stumbling blocks as opportunities. They are invitations to think harder about your characters and your story. Hopefully, you'll emerge on the other side on both feet and charging ahead at full speed. This is still the vomit draft, after all.

Happy stumbling.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Day Six - Opening Pages - And Cold Writing Days

Today is a normal writing day. And what I mean by that is that there are many distractions (children and spouses, bills to pay, things to clean, grocery shopping, etc.) and all of them seem much more vital and interesting than moving one word further on any of my writing projects.

That said, this is normal. Hot days - where you sit down on the way to brush your teeth and the next thing you know you're ten pages in and it's nearly noon - are rare. Most days are cold to lukewarm at best. But, pages do not write themselves and so you'd better get used to it.

Writing anything is always better than writing nothing. Even if what you write you end up throwing away, at least you went down a road you'll never have to travel again. You covered territory that will eventually help you discover your next parcel of solid writing. So, suck it up.

In my project I have finished the outline.

I broke out my treatment into 10 first act beats, 12 Act Two A beats, 12 Act 2B beats and 10 3rd act beats. I started by identifying the KEY BEATS which are highlighted in The Story Grid (see previous posts) and filled it out from there. The outline, like everything else, should be regarded as a tool. You are in control (for now) so act like it.

And then I faced the dreaded first scene. Not necessarily the opening scene - but any old scene you have the gumption to write. Of course, this takes place after you've created a title page and anything else you can think of to stave off starting.

So, I decided to write the opening scene for my first scene because it was the scene that helped me get into the story when I first imagined it. But I could not bring myself to write the "action" or description. Ironic because I've been tooling along on my novel at a healthy clip for weeks. (Action or description being the prose of a screenplay - you'd think I could handle a couple lines to get me into a scene... think again.) My mind is blank. My child is screaming. Facebook is calling through the DSL, "What is everyone else you know doing? Must be something way more interesting than this."

That first slugline just hung there in space, all alone. Lots of cursor hypnosis happening. Until finally, I decided to start with the dialogue - which led me to see what the characters were doing. Which led me to a scene I'm happy enough with the writing to move on to the next scene. And that's all there is to writing at this stage - moving on. I'm now four pages in. A good start. Next stop - inciting incident. Tomorrow I hope to get through roughly page 10-12 (inciting incident land.) Wish me luck.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Day Five - Breakthrough...

I love Mondays. Every Monday is a do-over. And this Monday is especially sweet because it's a holiday. I love writing on holidays because I can trick myself into believing it's "bonus" time. Like it doesn't really count, because I should be drinking my weight in beer and roasting by the pool. Instead, I'm sneaking in this extra writing. It's totally freeing. I can take more chances on extra Mondays. If only I could convince myself that every day was a holiday.

So happy day after the fourth of July. I'm off to write my five pages of novel, followed by finishing up breaking out my outline into beats of 10, 12, 12, 10.... More on that tomorrow.

In other news, I have happily happened upon my main character's arc. It is simply bottled-up to open. She is a control freak in the beginning and tragically afraid of feeling. She's bottled up a tragedy in her life, but that cork is also holding back her joy, happiness and capacity to love. The journey of the movie uncorks that bottle of pain, creating a big mess of her life as the contents spill out here and there. Ultimately, there is room to let the joy in.

I'm sharing this with you because it fills me with joy to take a step forward on a project. Joy in the writing process can't be beat. It's also few and far between. So embrace the victories when you get the chance. Yesterday, I made the huge mistake of drinking decaf which lead to one of the most depressing writing days of my life. I felt like a deflated balloon. This opened the door to fear and self-loathing who camped out with me all day and forced me to eat fattening food.

By the way, sometimes, I hate to admit this - but jelly donuts do get your through a rough writing spot. In the "writing tools" toolbox - this is right up there with The Story Grid and a pair of sweatpants. Funny post about the sweatpant/writing relationship here:

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Day Four - Part Two of The Grid

Okay - so a note about writing tools. They are tools. They aren't magic. They can't do the work for you, but they can help you do the work. And, just like you can't use one tool to frame a house, you can't use just one tool to write a screenplay.

Here's my favorite tool for outlining: Story Grid. If the structure of the screenplay is like the frame of a house, then the Story Grid is the hammer. After I have the storyline roughed out in a short treatment, once I know my character's arc (and I'm working every day on getting to know his/her attitudes, history, ambitions) I turn to the Story Grid.

I first started using a form of the Grid while studying screenwriting at UCLA. One of my favorite professor's grid got me through my first five or six scripts. (The professor was Hal Ackerman - who wrote the terrific how-to book: Write Screenplays That Sell - The Ackerman Way). But, as fabulous as this book is I discovered that I needed something more for pitching for writing assignments. All the structure was there and it was a great tool, but I needed something that emphasized the premise. In pitching the premise is King and Queen and landed gentry.

Next, I started using Blake Snyder's Save The Cat Beat Sheet. Blake Snyder, God rest his lovely soul, wrote Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever Need. And that was great for pitching, but, for me, I found the character arc unsupported when I got to the writing stage. And, for me, the third act was murky. Again, great tool, but I needed something a little different.

Then my mangers shared with me a diagram that had a multitude of arcs and arrows which basically discected the storyline (vs. the plot). Again helpful, but not exactly what I needed.

Finally, I decided to make my own. And the point is - other people's tools are great to get you started. Ride on the back of their knowledge and experience, but eventually you will discover what works for you. Here is what works for me. THE STORY GRID

Click On The Story Grid to make larger.

Here's the corresponding key to The Story Grid.

Opening Image - pretty self-explanatory, it is the image that opens your story. It should be mirrored with a closing image. These two images when held side-by-side should provide evidence of how your character has grown.

Issues/Problems Demonstrated - These are 3-6 examples of what need is lacking in your main character's life. These are set-up scenes and they must pull double duty. They set up the story (who, what, when, where, how-come?), they show where your character is at and what has transpired to get him/her in that place, but they also must set up pay offs where you will later show their corresponding pay-offs/resolutions of problems.

Potential Exposed - During the set-up sequence, relatively early on in the story, one of your scenes should provide an opportunity for the audience to see who your character can be one day. It is usually the same moment that tells the audience - hey we like this guy, let's root for him. No matter how messed up your character is - this is the moment where the audience can see themselves in the character and thereby gets on board to root him in.

Inciting Incident - Traditionally this is a letter, a message, a piece of information that sets the story in motion. What it has to be is a moment where the rest of the story would not take place if it had not occurred.

Act One Break - The end of Act One is where the story heads in a new direction. It is also where your premise starts playing out.

Act 2 A - How Your Premise Tests Your Main Character
This section is the entire point of your script to most people in Hollywood. Only us writers really care about character arcs and themes. This section is what is represented in the poster of the film and most of the scenes in the trailer will come from Act Two A. (The reason why your main character is being tested? Because on the character arc - he's still "before the midpoint." He's klinging to his old ways and therefore gets the snot beat out of him.

Midpoint - Before (approximately) page 55 your character's actions reflect the first half of his arc. After page 55 the scenes demonstrate moving closer to end of his character arc.

Act 2B - We are on the other side of the mid-point, so your character is now on his way to the right side of his character arc. He is now demonstrating those skills - but he doesn't quite have it down.

To demonstrate this you have two-linked beats. The Problem Returns - only stronger and he Battles Back, but with inadequate tools. Once the main character has learned his lessons the movie is over. In the second half of the second act, the obsticals have to escalate to keep us interested, and the character has grow to keep us interested, but the big point still eludes him. That's the big work of Act 2B.

Act Two Break - The end of Act Two is where your character is the farthest away from his goal. Everything has blown up in his face - even bigger than he ever thought possible. He's in a worse place now than when he started the movie.

Act 3 - Reflection Beat
After the smoke clears we need to see a moment where the main character reflects on his ownership of what has happened.

Getting It Right - Here's the climax of the film where the hero proves that he's learned his lesson. He may not have got what he wanted, but he's got what he needs and this is the beat where he demonstrates that.

Closing Image - Look how far we've come! Ideally this little wrap up beat should mirror (literally or thematically) the opening scene.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Day Three - Character Arc - Part One of The Grid

So the most important thing for me to figure out when I'm starting a project (or up for a writing job) is what character arc supports the premise. For me, this is half the ballgame.

For example, you are up for a writing assignment. A coming-of-age drama about a girl who runs away from home to become a movie star. What I ask myself is: "Who can travel the farthest in this story?" What lesson can the main character learn during this journey? When you find an arc that supports the premise - you've also found some opportunities for natural conflicts, you've found drama. You're half way home. This is where I start.

That's why in my outlining tool - The Grid - I put at the top: Main Character Arc ________ to _______ right up under the one-liner and the title. It's that crucial. Because where ever you are in your outline - if you get lost (and you will, it's natural) you can always go back to your character arc and figure out how your character should be behaving.

Let me explain. For the example above (I picked this because no one in Hollywood will admit to making movies about writer's, politicians or the Hollywood industry.) They do, occasionally, but usually only people with enough power to override the common thinking. The industry standard is stay away from these arenas.

But just for laughs, let's say our girl wants to prove to the world that she's special. She's looking for love and approval on a grand enough scale to take all the pains of her rotten childhood of neglect and scorn away. Her character arc would be: Looking for outside approval to finding self-acceptance. Or, in simpler terms, she's empty and winds up fulfilled. I love finding one word to tag my character to - my favorite arc I got to write was going from self-ish to self-less. That was for a comedy and what fun!

But back to the script that will never be made... In the first half of the script all scenes should demonstrate and be consistent with a character searching for love in all the wrong places. The second half she's taking steps to get it right. Along the way she can try to fill herself up on the wrong kind of external love. Ultimately she'll discover, after climbing the heights and losing everything, that there isn't enough success in the world to make her feel happy, until she starts to love herself. Can you see how the entire story is right there in the character arc?

Well, if that's not so clear maybe it will be once you marry it with the structural grid on tomorrow's post.

Day Two - Project Backstory

Yesterday I started the outlining process. But, that is hardly the beginning of the journey. To catch everyone up to speed here's the backstory to the story.

In my annual meeting with my agent and managers we discussed what I should do next. This is totally standard, only this year, I really needed to know what to do next. I didn't have a clue.

Okay, backstory to the backstory:

Since the writer's strike, I believe the industry has changed. The spec market did not roar back to life like it reportedly had after previous strikes. To be honest, I'm not sure anyone knows what game we're playing right now. The amount of work seems to have shrunk. It's still there, only it feels more like a puddle than a Great Lake.

So what's a writer to do? Well, who knows. But here's what not to do, complain, whine and wait for things to go back to the way they were. Ain't gonna happen.

What am I doing? I'm writing a spec (The Project) that hopefully we can package and sell and also use to get more assignment work. I'm writing a novel (a completely new endeavor that is wonderfully freeing) in hopes of finding a publisher and then selling as a movie adaptation and I'm developing one of my other ideas with another writer, me taking the producer's role.

So, I leave my annual meeting armed with The Idea. (Which by the way, was just a kernel of an idea until my agent threw in his magic and turned it into a full fledged, marketable, castable concept that I couldn't wait to tear out of the room and start writing.)

Next I turned The Idea into a treatment. A treatment is a summary of your story. You should be able to tell the entire story in two single spaced, typed pages. Those are the bones.

The next step is to get notes on The Bones from several trusted friends (or if you're lucky, like I am, to have savvy industry professionals on your team - them). Be open to their notes and listen for the little voice inside that says, "I recognize that." Even if you don't know how to fix it - or stubbornly don't want to. That's not your job right now. Just take it in and let it sit with you.

Next, incorporate the notes that resonated into a longer treatment or outline. For this project I had to do a longer treatment, because it helped me flesh out the character, and because my managers wanted to make sure I was ready to start writing. But you can go straight to outline. That's where we're at. You're all caught up.

Next Post: The Grid and The Outline

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Day One And So It Begins....

It is July 1, 2010 and I'm staring at a blank page.

During all this staring, while the cursor on my screen disappeared and reappeared in one second intervals, inducing a mild state of hypnosis, I realized that I'm about to start my 20th feature length screenplay.

In my humble opinion, twenty is when things really start to count. Who wouldn't search every pair of discarded jeans for a missing twenty spot? Twenty is also around the time when you can collect your pages, smack them on the desk and produce an impressive thump.

When I write "Fade Out" the very next time I will be there. Twenty scripts. Five of which have been made into actual movies. Not a bad batting average.

To commemorate this event, I've decided to blog about my process. I have two objectives in mind: 1) Share what I've learned and 2) Vent. No, just kidding. (Although, any writer that tells you writing isn't a miserable, tedious, horrible process which includes many hours of head bashing into neighboring wall, has never written anything. So, yes, there will be venting.) For real, 2) I want to motivate myself to keep growing as well. How will a blog do this? I'm not sure, to be honest. But, I'm willing to see how it goes. So here it is: How To Write A Screenplay

And so it begins. Day One of script number 20.

The page is still blank.

I wish I could tell you it gets easier. I wish I didn't have to go through the histrionics of convincing myself each and everytime, whether writing on assignment or on spec, that I didn't kill the braincells that knew how I did this the last time. Well, I can't tell you that because as I type this, the page is still blank, and instead of getting down to the business of writing my 20th script, I am blogging about writing my 20th script. I have officially entered a new level of procrastination. I'm kind of proud about that.

The Plan: First Draft (the vomit draft*) to be completed by August 13th. (Six weeks. Gasp. Gnash. Grind.)

Step One: Outline*

*Vomit Draft. 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.

*Outline - this is not actually the first step of my writing process. It is what I am launching into today. To read about the preliminary steps - read the next post - Project Backstory.