Restraint of Pen and Tongue – Great for Life, Bad for Scripts

I’m a 4 am writer. I love the quiet, the darkness, the lack of ringing phones and pressing business. It’s just me, my two sleeping dogs, and my laptop.

One of my mantras is “stay off the internet,” but I’m not always that strong. Especially if I’m waiting to hear from someone.

The days I go straight to my dropbox and don’t even open Google Chrome are the best. I get so much done, and barely even think a thought that isn’t about the world I am creating. But the days when I check my email… I get distracted. I want to interact with real people, think about my day and share my thoughts. Sometimes, I feel lonely and anxious and write emails I might regret later. On the worst days, I get into a neurotic anxiety spiral and share it with whomever I reach out to.

Long ago, I first heard the phrase “restraint of tongue and pen.” When I remember that, I benefit greatly, and the place I need to remember it most is when I’m emailing someone. It seems so important to say what I want to say, and it’s so easy for the person on the other end not to understand, to misconstrue, to take something personally that was never meant that way, or just to think I’m a mess. Invariably when I let my emotions take over, I regret it. Then I’m embarrassed at best, and at worst, I’ve hurt someone’s feelings.

In my screenplays, however, I can let myself go. My characters can say what they need to say and take the consequences. It’s all up to me. Early in the process, when I’m writing a first draft, I may have a tendency to hold back, limit the suffering I put my characters through. In rewrites, one of the first questions I ask myself is “Where do I back off, and how far can I push it?”

One time, a trusted mentor read a draft of one of my scripts in progress. He asked me why I had skipped from the beginning of a meal to the end when there was a potential for so much interesting interaction. The surprising answer (even to me) was that I did it because I wanted to save the actors from having to eat during the scene. Of course, his response was that they are actors and they love to be tortured. Otherwise they don’t think they are doing their jobs! He was kidding, but you have to admit he had a point. Why else would they gravitate towards roles with the widest emotional range and the greatest physical torment?

One of the things I often notice when covering scripts for beginning writers, is the tendency not to let the main character suffer. Most early screenplays are somewhat autobiographical. The writer wants the main character to be liked and understood, therefore is afraid to let him or her act out. Then, because it’s them, they don’t want them to suffer.  I always remind them that flawed characters are most human and that’s why we love them, and the more they suffer along the way, the more we want them to succeed. So go ahead, let the nun get raped, the thief get caught and the diver hit his head on the rock. Just don’t do it in an email!

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Prep for Success

If you’re a relative beginner, like me, it is time to accept  that screenwriting comes with a long and difficult learning curve.

In addition to the daily requirement of  hours at the keyboard, one of the ways you can set yourself up to succeed is through ongoing involvement with screenwriting classes. Mine is with Writers Boot Camp. They have a great set of tools and a serious commitment to creating professional writers. They also have networking opportunities and events, and many other opportunities to stay involved.  If you are starting out, I couldn’t recommend it more. I started back in June of 2009 with Basic Training, the six-week class. I’d been trying to teach myself the craft from books for over a year, and could barely get my script out of Act One. I took the six week class and had a real first draft of the feature I was writing, complete with beginning, middle and end.

Because I loved the class and really wanted to do this, I enrolled that September in Project Group. The first six months was done online with one-on-one sessions by telephone with my instructor. The tools they teach are very difficult to grasp at first, and it was frustrating to me that I had to work so hard at them. Instead of an A+ and a pat on the back I’d get notes on how to make them stronger. The philosophy at WBC is that the focus is not on whether your work is good or bad, but on the goal of making a draft industry-worthy. I could see myself improving and the value of the system, but at the same time I had never worked so hard for so little positive reinforcement.

After the online portion of the course, I attended a class in New York City every two weeks, with weekly phone sessions with my instructor. I was lucky to live where I could take the course live, and even more lucky to have a very dedicated teacher who was willing to go over and above the call of duty. Since I knew TV was where I wanted to be, he suggested I do extra work to break down and study some of my favorite shows. With his help, I learned what made them work and how to bring some of those elements into my own writing.  By the time I finished the two year program, the tools clicked into place and were of great benefit to my writing process. My understanding of them continues to grow and so does their usefulness to me.

Being hard-working and committed to my writing, after the 2-year program I was invited to join Bivouac. It’s an alumni group designed to bridge the gap between Project Group and Professional Writer. In addition to a monthly meeting, I finally got my chance to evaluate scripts, which is nearly as valuable to my education as the tools of WBC. I was carefully trained to assess student scripts according to a strong set of guidelines and focused notes. The process is so effective that it allows me to help every single writer to advance to the next-stepping stone and make their script better. It has been incredibly rewarding and has a profound effect on my own writing.

If you want to be a screenwriter, it can help to surround yourself with people who have similar goals. Find a great teacher  and develop a writing process that works. If you are willing to use the available resources and work hard to master the craft, then it the question of “if,” becomes a question of “when.”

These are some of the ways I have set myself up to succeed, and I’d love to hear about yours. Keep writing…

Fellowship Applications: What Not to Do

Last year, around June 8, I decided to enter the competition for NBC/Universal Writers on the Verge. I didn’t have a completed spec, or even a half-completed spec, but felt that if I worked hard on it, I could get it in time for the June 29th deadline. I decided to write a Vampire Diaries Spec, because I had been watching it with my teenage daughter and I thought it was fun and it fit the specifications of being popular, renewed and in its first three seasons.

Actually, Season two had just wrapped up, and that gave me about forty-four episodes to study, most of which I had seen. The first thing I needed to do was to find some scripts to see how the show was formatted and get a feel for the style of the writing. As it turned out, CW scripts are hard to come by, and I was only able to get my hands on the pilot. What I couldn’t learn from that, I had to make up or glean from the show.

For the next three weeks I worked very hard to get the script together, 8 to 12 hours a day. I hadn’t done a spec script and was still learning how TV story lines intertwined. What I ended up with was a polished first draft, but a first draft nonetheless. Being an egomaniacal newbie writer, I sent off the script, convinced that even in its unfinished state, my natural talent would shine through – Hah! On the day it was due, I slaved away on my computer until the last possible moment, finishing up the essay questions and filling out the application. Of course I never heard from them.

This year I’m doing somewhat better. Having spent the rest of the summer rewriting my spec, I sent it off to a contest in which it placed in the quarterfinals. That alerted me that another draft was needed. I took the time to rework it, cut it down considerably, and through the process of several evaluations over the life of the script, I got it close to the best it could be.

This year, I have already applied to Disney and WB. Thankfully, I learned my lesson and had my essays written, reviewed and rewritten well in advance. The actual preparation of the applications took much longer than I anticipated, so I was very happy to have given myself that extra time. Weeks before the deadline, I asked some friends in the industry for letters of recommendation, which they agreed to do. I ended up with three glowing letters to choose two from, and felt that the application I sent off would be seriously considered. I had done all I could do.

I’d say the most important lesson I’ve learned is that I never want to show anyone work that is sub-par. Second, another set of eyes will always see something I’ve missed, so it makes a lot of sense to have my work evaluated by a trusted advisor. Third, everything takes longer than I think it will, so I have to leave extra time to do it right.

That’s what I’ve learned to date about applying for Fellowships and Workshops. If you have any insight to the process, I’d love to hear about it.

Checking In

I haven’t been blogging as much as I’d like, because I’ve been so busy writing my scripts. Here’s a sneak peek into what I’ve been up to lately, and what I plan to write about in the near future.

  • How many drafts does it take to get to a final product?
  • Writing with a partner – joys and frustrations
  • Getting those applications off and what not to do
  • Nerdist.com
  • What script evaluations teach me

“Save the Cat” and my new title and logline

One of my favorite pastimes since before I could read was to curl up with a good book. Yup, I was that dorky kid who read at the playground, on the way to and from school, and even looked forward to getting sent to my room because it meant I could read some more. Not surprisingly, I turned out to be a writer. Even then, I knew I’d never regret the time I spent reading.

Okay, maybe I regretted it when I wasn’t picked to play on the team until last. But at least I always had a place to hide.

Today, I find myself reading a lot of screenwriting books. I also read screenplays, and books on organizing (an area of personal difficulty in which I’ve made great strides), and fiction and blogs and websites, and, of course, the trades. And all of it helps me, but none is as satisfying or rewarding as my how-to books on screenwriting.

Once I’d discovered the world of blogging, I noticed that all the websites I liked seemed to reference their favorite authors, as well.  I’d seen the book, “Save the Cat” before, but never paid much attention until it started to show up on everyone’s list. I’ve just finished it for the second time (I always read them twice, then refer back later as needed). I’m so glad I did, because it was incredibly helpful and informative. I especially love the instructions for finding the perfect logline and title.  And the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet is pretty cool, too.

Thank to “Save the Cat” I came up with a new log line and title for my drama spec. I’d love feedback whether you like it, or if you don’t. If you watch the show, that would really help, too.

White Collar: Into Temptation

Neal sees a portrait of his former life when he and Peter go undercover and join a ring of thieves led by a Swedish femme fatale.

The first two seasons of White Collar are available on Netflix to stream.

Perfection is the Enemy

I’m almost done with my first draft of the White Collar Spec, and I’m terrified to finish it. I realized it was because I think it’s supposed to be good. I forgot how important it is to write the first draft, let it be terrible and edit it until it gets better, and keep editing it until it gets good, then really good, then the best it can be.

It’s funny, how I have to learn the same lessons over and over. The first draft doesn’t matter. No matter what I do, it will launch me into the rewrites. It will be a stepping stone to something better. And no matter what expectations I have, that is all it should ever be.

I’m lucky to have an excellent reader to give me notes, and an excellent set of tools to work with. I don’t want to disappoint him, or hear the notes. And even as I say it I know it’s not true. Without those notes, it might never reach the point of excellence I strive for. Considering I’ve only finished one script so far, it most likely won’t reach it anyway. But the only way out is through. I’m in this for the long haul.

No more procrastinating. On Monday, I will have a first draft to turn in, and it will be terrible. I promise. As far as the notes go… bring it on, baby! Until next time, happy writing!