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Posts Tagged ‘writer’

That Does Not Compute!

August 19th, 2011 No comments

One of the perils of being a writer in the digital age is the prevalence of high-tech gadgets and newfangled gizmos we depend on to get our messages across that are far more complicated than either of those old standbys the pencil or (if you remember back far enough) the typewriter. Sure, some writers still trust in the ‘old ways,’ but most writers these days have surrendered to the digital revolution. As such, we have grown increasingly dependent on these electronic tools. When they work well, they make our lives easier. When they stop working – well, that’s a horse of a different color, to use an anachronistic metaphor.

Presently I find myself bedeviled by computer problems: my stalwart laptop is little more than a shelf for papers and assorted bits of detritus on my desk, since it chose to stop working after a recent software update. And my old workhorse PC is fighting for life after a botched hardware upgrade; using intuition, accumulated past fix-it knowledge and a lot of wishful thinking, I have managed to resurrect the PC with an archaic version of its operating system. That’s the bad news. The good news? I can still write and post, which is something I rely on to maintain my sanity. And that ain’t nothin’, as the expression goes…

But even without digital devices, one can – and should (if you consider yourself a writer, that is) write. It’s been said that artists are compelled to create, and that is especially true of writers. Without a medium and a message, a writer is just another featherless biped (with apologies to writers who have either feathers or a different number of legs). Having a story to tell, even if it is just about your battles with bits and bytes, is life’s blood to creative writers. So a computer malfunction shouldn’t stop you: after all, who tops the food chain when it comes to electrical productivity devices? YOU. Your brain, the most complicated and powerful processor there is, runs on electrical impulses. And, if you play your cards right and behave, it should never present you with ‘the blue screen of death.’ Let’s hope not, anyway!

So is there a moral to this story? Of course. There’s always a moral – or a point. And here, it’s this: you can write anywhere, on anything. The concept for the hit ’80s TV show “Miami Vice” was was two words scrawled on a cocktail napkin: “MTV Cops.” And it made NBC and Michael Mann millions. But I’m not suggesting using serviettes as your writer’s medium of choice. A pad of paper or a notebook along with a pen or pencil will do just fine. Quill pen and parchment? Sure. Even crayons and wrapping paper, if that’s your thing. In short, it doesn’t matter what you write on. It simply matters that you write.

Therefore, to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald from his masterpiece “The Great Gatsby,” “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly into the past.” At least that’s what it feels like writing on a computer that has seen better days, using an outdated operating system and browser. But it gets the job done, and that’s good enough for me. Because the secret isn’t writing efficiently – it’s writing well. And using old equipment to accomplish that? Well, it doesn’t diminish the pleasure I get from creating. Stated another way, I’ll allude to Hugh Hudson’s Oscar-winning 1981 film “Chariots of Fire,” which garnered 4 Academy Awards out of 7 nominations (including a win for Colin Welland’s original screenplay). In the film, which outlines the competition at the 1924 Olympics between runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams, Liddell, son of missionaries and a devout Christian, explains that when he runs, he “feels God’s pleasure.” I can relate, because when I write, I feel the unmitigated joy at the opportunity to express myself. I own a couple of computers because I just do. But I write because I feel I must.

 

Subject Matter? Yes!!

August 11th, 2011 No comments

 

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up…

It’s every writer’s eternal quest: finding something ‘interesting’ to write about. I’ve addressed the subject of subject matter before in For Bards blog, most recently last December: “What Should I Write About?” In that post, I described a holiday dinner I attended with a group of friends: a Hollywood set dresser, a Tony-nominated playwright, a TV costumer, a Hollywood studio executive assistant and a last-minute addition: a screenwriter, the son of a famous British knight. And me, of course – after all, every historic party requires its amanuensis.

And that’s where it started to get interesting…

As I wrote last December, the dinner was wonderful – and the company was delightful. All of us had known one another for years, with the exception of the last-minute guest. He arrived after the party had started, a bottle of wine in hand, and proceeded to work his charm – and obvious self-promotion – over the rest of the group. His reputation had preceded him: our host’s dear friends from out of state explained that the man was working on a hush-hush screenplay, and was staying at an acquaintance’s home in ritzy Pacific Palisades as he worked out the final details of a sale to a major studio. Tall and charming, he was the son of a famous British knight connected with the music industry, and possessed a melifluous voice that was alternately soothing and authoritative. In short, he was a real character.

A real character

As I wrote last December, this dinner could serve as subject matter for any number of stories: a “Big Chill” reunion tale, “Home For the Holidays” comedy or – as I’ve subsequently discovered – a flim flam caper. Because that screenwriter son of a famous British knight? He left one item off his resume: con man. In the months since, I’ve come to learn that this man, who really is the son of a knight, has taken advantage of friends, acquaintances and strangers for years. Apparently he has a screenplay, since he later shared some of it with one of the dinner guests (although it’s not clear it’s really his),  but no ‘multi-million dollar deal’ as he’d repeatedly mentioned at dinner. It turns out the out-of-state pals who vouched for him with our dinner host were also taken, for loans and hospitality, and his Pacific Palisades landlord was similarly stiffed. We’ve since surmised that even the bottle of wine brought to that holiday dinner was probably pilfered from his host’s wine cellar.

Prodigal Son or Problem Child?

So the amount of story material yielded from this holiday dinner of late 2010 has increased exponentially. Now it could be a comedy about a huckster, a straight-up drama dealing with identity, or a character study of an antisocial persona. In short, discovering a wolf in our flock of sheep upped the creative ante considerably. Because drama is conflict, the opportunities for fashioning a story out of this experience are manifold. Since learning of this con man’s modus operandi, I’ve also discovered he has been doing this for years; he has been disowned by his illustrious father and left a trail of broken relationships in his wake. Were it not for the force of the man’s personality, I’m certain he would’ve been unmasked as a fraud years ago. His ceaseless self-promotion at dinner was strange, and perhaps should have been take as a red flag, although let’s face it: in Hollywood, people love to brag about their successes. Ironically, in my experience, the most successful people brag the least.

Interesting story – but it needs an ending…

For someone looking for story material, I’ve proven there are at least a few takes on something as simple as a dinner party. The revelation that one guest was a con man adds depth to the story, perhaps propelling it into its second act. Was the con man there to steal something? To find another victim? Taking a day off? There are so many options open to this story, and very few dead ends. The one thing the story presently lacks is a solid ending. Is it a happy ending? A righteous one? What if the ending is simply a new beginning? There are so many choices open to a creative writer – so now all you need to do is create.

The morality of the story…

There may be no moral to this story, but there certainly is morality involved. The con man guest isn’t necessarily the most important character to the story, but he’s a valuable one. His conflicted morality offers multiple plot lines and story points – all necessary to a successful screenplay. So, what have we learned? A dinner party can provide story material, but its story potential multiplies when someone (or perhaps more than one) at that party has a secret. As a writer, your job is to reveal any secrets in a way that makes your work relevant, compelling and entertaining. It’s a tough job – but, hey – you’re a writer, aren’t you?

 Are you up to the task?

Homework during summer? BUMMER!

July 27th, 2011 No comments

 

 

Dude, hope you’re havin’ a bitchin summer!

OK… you’re a screenwriter. So where’s your homework?

HOMEWORK?! Nobody said anything about homework…!

WHAT Unwritten Rules?

Aha! Homework is another of the unwritten rules of screenwriting. (As the saying goes, “There are no rules to sure success in the movie business – but you break them at your own peril.”) And everyone has to do homework – even if they’re the teacher.

Homework, but no Phys Ed, right?

No Physical Education, but you should get off the couch, your movie theater seat or desk chair every once in a while. In the case of screenwriting, homework really consists of knowing your business. Literally. The more movies you have seen, the more scripts you have read, the better your chances of writing a strong, original screenplay. Although it may seem illogical, being original is really a matter of knowing what’s gone before – so you can avoid the same territory. As a story analyst, I can usually tell a writer’s formative film and scripting influences as soon as I read their work. It’s human nature to emulate writing which we think is ‘quality,’ even if it involves unconscious borrowing or, in the worst cases, plagiarizing. It’s helpful to know if you’re unwittingly channeling a story that’s already been told (and which you saw and didn’t remember) before you submit your script – afterwards is too late, particularly for that script opportunity or your reputation.

Homework was never this fun

Cheer up. Screenwriting homework, like the ‘work’ of writing, isn’t too tough. In fact, screenwriting homework  is easier than writing. Basically, it involves two things: your mind and subject matter. The instructions go something like this: combine the two, ponder, and repeat. That’s about all there is to it. In other words, stimulate your mind with a film or film script, absorb the story elements, note the tone and pacing, appreciate the characters and plot. Above all, remember. Remember the general story and structure, recall the overall theme. This can all be done from the comfort of your couch – or a movie theater seat – at your leisure. But it needs to be done. Otherwise you may end up writing “Casablanca” due to the fact that you had a great idea for a ‘retro love-triangle story’ because you failed to remember that ‘arthouse movie’ an old girlfriend dragged you to years before…

Look at the blueprints, visit the building

As a story analyst, I have read thousands of screenplays, plays and teleplays (along with treatments, manuscripts, you name it…). And I have seen more than several people’s shares of films and television. While I may lack the zeitgeist sophistication of my youthful nephews and nieces, I could beat the tar out of any one of them when it came to ‘movie trivia,’ (or, as I prefer to call it, ‘knowledge’) or story precedents. And, while I intend to learn the entire Lady Gaga canon some day, knowing whether someone’s script is perilously close to “Blade Runner” comes in a lot handier right now, for me and my clients.

In terms of actual homework, a great exercise is to read the film script, then see the movie. There are a lot of film script sites allowing you to read scripts for free, among them The Internet Movie Script Database (IMSDb). Once you’ve read the script, it’s time to see the film. Apart from heading to theaters for current releases, multitudes of films are available on Blu-ray and DVD, along with streaming titles and on-demand titles, so there shouldn’t be much of a barrier to find the film you are looking for. Ideally, you’ll hang on to the script and make notes if you notice anything that is meaningful to you – but in any case you will have developed a greater understanding of how screenplays are ‘stitched together,’ and what Hollywood looks for in a finished script.

Cheer up – there’s extra credit

Doing your ‘screenwriting homework’ during the summer isn’t so bad. It gets you inside from the blazing heat that seems to be everywhere, and hopefully it’s entertaining. But if it isn’t, that’s where the real work starts: why was it slow? Which character was weak? Did you spot the plot hole? It’s sometimes easier to find the seams in a bad movie than a good one, usually because they’re so obvious – and it’s the same with the script that went before. While reading a script, be aware of the flow and pace, its overall story and characters. Does the dialogue sound right? If any aspect of the script seems questionable, pay extra attention to that when you watch the film – sometimes it really was ‘fixed in editing,’ but often the same deficiencies persist from script to finished product.

The Lone Exception

Of course there’s one screenplay that is simply perfect just the way it is: yours. Or so you hope. Unless you’ve done your homework, you may only find out you’re not ‘completely correct’ when your script gets sent back to you. So do your homework – or benefit from the services of someone who’s helped writers like you by offering constructive criticism. But whatever you do, always put your best effort forward.