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.