No Excuses

I’m fighting a cold. I’m buried in receipts for a meeting with the tax preparer. I traveled across country this week. I had a busy few days at work. I had to get the car fixed. I had a lot of paperwork regarding upcoming jobs. I had to work out.

We all have excuses. But I vowed to update this blog at least once a week, more often when I had more to talk about. Since I finished the script last week and was deliberately taking a few weeks off from the script, I deserve a blog vacation, right?

Nope.

Gotta keep at it. Some great advice I once heard was that writing is a job, whether you get paid or not, and like all jobs there are days you don’t want to go to the office. It’s normal to feel that way. However, just because you don’t want to go to work means you can call in sick all the time. Without a boss, calling in sick for writing is easy to do. It’s a slippery slope.

That said, I usually put my blog entries out on Tuesday or Wednesday. And here it is, Saturday. Saturday evening. So I’m writing this post rather than watching the sunset with a cocktail in hand, or getting ready to go out to dinner. Nope. Gonna finish this post first.

Egg timer

Sure, finishing the post this late in the week is like showing up for your work shift with ten minutes left on your scheduled day. But so what…at least I came in to work at all.

Next week I’ll be on time, I promise. Please don’t fire me.

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Just for Me

This draft is mine. Keep your grubby paws off it.

Not that you are clamoring to read the rough draft of a screenplay. I’m sure you have books to catch up on, magazines quickly stacking up in your bathroom or on your counter, or even a slew of other screenplays to read. That said, this draft is only for me.

Any screenwriter can tell you that once a script is finished, the instinct is to show it off right away. “Look what I made! Congratulate me! I’m the shit!” And like any new parent, we expect our script to be treated like a newborn. “Be kind, it’s a brand new baby. She’s unfinished, ugly, and clumsy, but she’s all mine. Now tell me how cute she is. Isn’t she the cutest baby you’ve ever seen?”

Except your script is not a baby. And when you put it out in the world, people will point out the warts, flaws, drool, and frankly they will not be polite in telling you how much that baby stinks. And your baby does stink. Because unlike a real baby, a script has not gestated long enough; it is simply not ready for the world. Because a script is not a baby, but a mature, fully grown adult. Sure, there may be warts, flaws and drool in an adult, but at least the adult structure is all there. We find drooling and crying babies cute, but drooling and crying adults? Not so much.

almost_done_with_my_screenplay_baby_t_shirt-re19a499189474fcebbeb1792cc82bcf5_f0c6y_512

(for more shirts that argue my point go to zazzle.com)

Okay, before I get on the bus to Analogyville via the Digress Expressway, I think you get my point. And this point is a valuable lesson to any writer. Before you seek feedback and validation, take some perspective so you can reflect honestly on what you wrote. Let the passion and excitement of completing a script ebb before letting others in, and before you let others in, reread it. After a week or so away from it, is it still all you thought it was? Notice any errors you didn’t notice before? Are you happy with all the characters? Does the plot unfurl on paper the way it does in your head?

We’ve grown accustomed to reality show competitions like American Idol and Top Chef where artists are INSTANTLY judged on their efforts. They finish their warbling cover of When Doves Cry or their braised pork cheek and red snapper with collard green slaw and fennel puree, and nearly fall over themselves as the judges offer their cleverly worded (and often scripted!) opinions. They always hope for the best but often get the worst.  Whether the feedback is good or bad, they are always getting slightly more famous (for the time being).

We also overlook the effort that got these players to this level. Even an amateur showcase like American Idol requires hours and hours of preparation, both before entering the competition and during the run itself. How many hours has that singer spent rehearsing one song for this week’s tribute to Abba? How many years of singing did it take to make that voice stand out to the audition judges to get on the show? How many years were spent in the kitchen perfecting cooking technique?

My point is that my script is a baby, and needs to grow up a little before you get your judgy, judgy peepers on it. So thank you for your patience but this baby ain’t ready.

Deadline Day

Ever since you were little you were sternly warned about deadlines. In second grade, if you turned in your drawing late the teacher would say “I’ll take it late this time, but in third grade they don’t allow late papers.” Each year, the same thing. In sixth grade it’s “when you get to junior high you’ll have a tough time, because they won’t let you turn things in late.” On and on, each level scaring you with the hellish consequences of the future, while letting it slide today.

Sure, maybe it’s difficult to turn in a college application late, but it’s probably not impossible. And that’s when anarchy sets in. In college, late papers are commonplace. If your excuse is at least decent (or if you can muster up a few tears) then usually an extension is granted. In the adult world, it’s more of the same. Sure, missing a work deadline is troublesome and a few too many of them will lead to you getting the axe, but one or two can slip through. They say the only thing you can’t avoid are death and taxes? Well, it’s not that difficult to file for an extension on taxes. And decades down the road, when we merge with the robots, we may even be able to cheat death. So how am I, a lone pen-slinging cowboy, going to possibly keep my own self-imposed deadline with all this open land before me? Plus, I started a new job this week, plus I had a few meetings. I mean, it’s easily been the craziest week since we landed in L.A. in November. So you can forgive me if I don’t reach my silly, stupid, and meaningless goal.

Well, I finished the script. With 18 hours to spare. Take that, haters!

It was going to be close. All week I struggled to fit in writing time, often in 15 minute blocks throughout the day. With less than 24 hours to go, I had about 7 pages left when I crashed. Done for the day. If I make it tomorrow, good. If not, no biggie. I tried, right?

Then I had some help from an unlikely source: Insomnia.

The demon of the night, who haunts me with regularity, came knocking. Half of the time I sleep well, a deep often dreamless 8 hours. The other half of my nights are touch and go. I have very little trouble falling asleep, but on those nights my eyes blink wide open, usually between 2 and 4am. From there it’s anyone’s guess…sometimes I’ll only be up 20 minutes, other times it’s over 2 hours. Last night was the latter. After going to bed at 10:30pm (we party animals have a busy day planned and needed to be up at 5:45am) I woke up at 2:30am. Blink. Blink. Blink. Etc. The clock hit 3:30am, 4:00am. Blink. Blink. Blink. Eventually my mind settled on the ending of the script. It was all unfolding perfectly. Three more scenes, and then the big finish. So get out of bed, dummy!

I slogged out of the bedroom and planted myself at the computer. Wrote for a half hour. Nearly finished. One scene to go, but I was getting drowsy so I thought maybe I’d get a power half hour of sleep in. Didn’t happen, so when the alarm went off I planted myself in front of the computer and finished the job.

First draft complete! Well, sort of. More on that after I…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

The Final Countdown

“Beware the ides of March, for your deadline doth approacheth, and if it shall pass without the completion of your task, then woe be unto you and all of yours and be branded for all of eternity as a failure.” Clarence Shakespeare (no relation)

I have a self imposed deadline of March 15th for completion of the first draft of the screenplay. I set this deadline with my friend Brad, who is also writing a screenplay. We gave ourselves this date as a deadline. A completely arbitrary date. Why this date? Who knows? At the time (three weeks ago) it felt like a reasonable date to complete a script. But things change. Life happens. Other side trips are taken. And here I am, four days away from the deadline, and I am in trouble.

Deadline

I have written 71 pages so far. Brad gleefully mentioned a few days ago that he was on page 79 (stupid overachiever). The average screenplay is roughly 90-100 pages, so by conventional logic, I have about 25 pages to write this week. But of more importance than the page count, I have to actually finish the script. And here’s my scary secret:

I have no idea how this movie ends.

I have a good idea of what might happen. I have been making discoveries along the way that are exciting and surprising, even to the author of the script. The other day a character revealed something that was a big plot twist, and even I didn’t see it coming.

But that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t have a concrete ending. And the clock is ending.

So what? It’s an arbitrary deadline. Why don’t I go sit on the beach, launch my computer into the surf, and laugh heartily at rewriting my own destiny. This isn’t a paid writing assignment. No producer is breathing down my neck for this script. My manager isn’t politely but firmly inquiring as to when it will be done. No one is gathering outside my apartment, watching for white smoke to spew from the chimney. This deadline is for me (and now Brad, that stupid overachiever). And without self-imposed deadlines, I may never finish this script.

I could go on, but I should really be writing something else other than this blog right now, don’t you think?

See you on Friday.

The only two words a writer needs to know

Another week. 57 pages in the vault. Still aiming for my arbitrary March 15th deadline.

I never get writers block (and by never, I mean rarely, I don’t want to jinx myself). When a script is outlined properly or the characters are strong enough, there is always something to do or say. Another great way to keep the block at bay is to make a point to see creative work. It could be in or out of my discipline: live theater, movies, art museums. The catch is that I have to make an effort to go see it. There is plenty of amazing quality and artistically exciting work on television (I am currently juggling season one of Game of Thrones and season two of Homeland) but it takes no effort to sit on the couch and watch TV. Going somewhere makes it an experience, and that shared experience with others keeps you more engaged.

I had two experiences this week that led to the title of this post. Last night I attended my first meeting as a member of The Actors Studio Playwright/Director Unit. Member requirements in the Unit are simple: (1) show up to once a week staged readings by other members, (2) take a break for coffee, (3) return and critique the work. Then, when you are ready, present your work. The critique last night was rousing to say the least. Opinions flew, inappropriate stories were shared (inappropriate mostly because they were completely unrelated to the play on display), and disagreements were vehemently shouted at each other while the playwright observed like a tennis fan. While some of the critique was unhelpful (and occasionally downright wrong) I walked away with a reminder of a valuable lesson. One word which should drive all creative writing:

CONFLICT

The play seemed a bit slow at times, and one of the other members of the unit pointed out a simple detail the writer either overlooked: there needs to be more conflict, and more conflict earlier in the script. There were very compelling characters, and the story was relevant and one that I have not seen explored, but it felt slow because the conflict was either not there, or buried under the surface.

We enjoy stories that have a conflict.

The other word stems from a trip we took this past week to Disneyland with our niece. Gabi is two and a half. She loves Minnie Mouse. That afternoon she got to meet her idol:

Gabi and Minnie

This has nothing to do with this blog post, but it’s freaking adorable.

What is relevant is that we got to see the parade down Main Street U.S.A. We were lucky to catch it, as it probably only happens seventy times a day. If you haven’t been to a Disney park (then you are evil) allow me to set the stage: Main Street U.S.A., clogged with olde tymie shops selling new tymie, modern pricey Disney memorabilia. The cobblestone street is shut down as a Mardi Gras style parade (with 100% less boobs) proceeds down the street. Most Disney characters get their own float. There’s an Aladdin float, a Little Mermaid float, a Mary Poppins float, and many of the princesses are relegated to one float, sort of like a greatest hits mix CD. They dance, they sing (lip synch) and they wave to the crowd. And the crowd LOVES it. It’s hard not to love it, unless you are legally dead. It’s an exuberant display of joy. It’s pure ENTERTAINMENT.

And that got me thinking. Standing there, waving at the Lion King, I was reminded that whenever I am writing a script, no matter how personal, small in size, or small in genre it is, it has to be entertaining. Not necessarily as broad as a parade down Main Street U.S.A., but at it’s core, has to entertain one very important person:

Me.

If I am not entertaining myself in the story, then how can I expect to entertain others? If I can’t write a script without saying “I’d watch that movie” then there is no way I can get others on board. Even so-called high art, whether it’s an all black painting on a wall or making eye contact with Marina Abramovic, is all a form of entertainment. If people are going to congregate in a room and stare at something, you have to give them something thought provoking to see.

These are very important words to keep in mind while I am at this stage of the writing process. Is there conflict? Is it entertaining? Everything else comes later.