The Verdict is in…

I sat down to read the script for the first time in nearly two months. For the past few weeks my practical side was preparing me for mediocrity, while my ego was preparing the Oscar speech. Unfortunately, the pragmatism whispered by the practical side was drowned out by the cacophonous marching band of my ego, and all rational thinking had been thrown out the window. I started to read, readying myself for the best screenplay this side of Chinatown.

Well, it ain’t no Chinatown. It ain’t even Big Trouble in Little China. It’s nothing if not Nothing But Trouble.

They all know your script is in trouble

They all know your script is in trouble

The problems starting hitting me almost from the beginning. The story alternates between moving at a glacial pace to leapfrogging over important facts. Two different characters sound exactly the same, and could very well be the same character. The arc of my lead character at times was a horizontal line. The ending was so abrupt it was if I ran out of time at the computer lab in college.

It’s bad. The worst script I have ever read. The worst script  ever written. If I succeeded in anything, it was making Joe Esterhaus look like Arthur Miller, and Ed Wood look like William Shakespeare. I have elevated everyone else in the pond by sinking like a stone.

Okay. Breathe. Is it truly that terrible? Focus on something good, man.

Okay. Well. Some of the plot twists took me by surprise, and I wrote them. The story is still original and compelling. The ending sucks but mostly because I gave myself a deadline and didn’t finish it properly, and only a few (admittedly large) tweaks will fix that up. Also, there are some  jokes, and they aren’t terrible.

So is it a terrible script? Or is it a great script?

Neither, of course.

But of more importance, at this stage of the game it’s still MY script. I’m not sharing it with anyone, not even my trusted close confidants who are the first to read my scripts.

In short: I’m exactly where I am supposed to be.

Just make it less sucky.

I’m Back In

It has been over a month since I finished my script. It’s time to return to the surface.

For SCUBA divers, this means it's time.

For SCUBA divers, it’s time to surface. For basketball players, a technical foul. Or a time out. You know what, let’s stick with the first meaning.

To be more precise, it has been been six weeks and four days since I last typed a word of it, or even read a word of it. In fact, right now it took me a few minutes to find the script on my hard drive since I couldn’t remember the title or the folder it was in. In case you are wondering, the document is called “New Script” and the folder is called “New Film Project.” It’s not like there was a flashing neon sign above the door, or anything.

I have clearly put some distance between writing and rewriting. That’s what I wanted, and I was happy to get some perspective. Worked on some other projects, saw shows and readings by other writers, flew across the country, and even (gasp) wasted time doing nothing.

But now I’m back in. Ready to work. Opening the file. Here goes…

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.

Stay on the tracks

So far I have written 40 pages of the first draft. Screenplays tend to have three acts, and I have already completed the first act. I’m happy with the progress, but now it’s time to fight all my instincts and press forward.

The hardest part of my job as conductor of this script train is to stay on the tracks and keep aiming for the station, which is roughly 50-70 pages away. It’s a hard job because more than anything I want to go back. Now that I’m this far in, I know so much more about my lead character and I want to enhance the details. My supporting characters are barely sketched out now, and I know what they desire and need. Locations now have detailed items in them. Some scenes can be shorter. Other need to be longer. I want to go back and fix these things.

But I won’t. I can’t speak for every writer, but I know from experience now that if I go back and fix things I will fall behind, and will unlikely catch up. Once I get into tweaking things, that process will never stop. Little tweaks beget little tweaks, and before I know it I’ll have an extremely tight and brilliant 20 pages, and I’ll be 85-years-old and straining from reading my script on my iPhone 37G.

It’s not too dramatic to say if I stop the train and it’s momentum, I will not get it going again and I will never reach the station. Also, like most trains and modes of travel, there is an arrival time. Writing a script should be no different. I’m going to say that the First Draft Express is due to arrive at Completion Station on March 15th. Arbitrary? Sure. But an arbitrary deadline is much better than no deadline.

Lottery Tickets

I just returned from a 48-hour quickie vacation in Las Vegas with my wife and her parents. They were there for the World of Concrete convention. We helped them take down their display after the convention, shared a few wonderful meals, and my father-in-law and I both made cameo appearances in the Cirque du Soleil show O.

Outside of one sports bet, I didn’t do any gambling.

I like those odds

I like those odds

Nothing against gambling; I enjoy losing hours at the Blackjack table. However, at the time of this trip finances are tighter and I can’t justify throwing away $100+ when I’m not making as much money as I would like right now.

Besides, my entire career is based on gambling. Any career in the arts is a gamble, a lifetime of freelancing where if all goes extremely well you can find security for 12 to 18 months with a long touring gig, a TV writing assignment, an arc on a sitcom, or a variety of other highly rewarding jobs that at their best, will give you a financial cushion down the road when you are back looking for jobs. If you are not Pat Sajak or a cast member of Sesame Street, then you are likely looking for work now or in the near future.

This is why I refer to my scripts as lottery tickets. Whenever I write a script, I try to not think of the endgame…the success, the accolades, the long life of each project, but it’s hard to not imagine what would happen with a touch of success. The odds are long, which is why more tickets mean more chances. I’m not advocating spending time and resources to create a bunch of mediocre lottery tickets, but now when I have an idea, I start putting it into action, and damn the consequences.

When I was a younger writer, I toiled on a screenplay that I knew would be my big break. I spent the better part of two years writing, rewriting, having table reads, re-editing, re-imagining, and doing everything I could to make this script elevate my career. Despite favorable responses in the industry, I realized that one script does not a career make. Very few people had their first script launch them into the stratosphere. More often, the first script to become successful is built on the backs of other scripts and projects. Usually, when someone in the entertainment industry reads a script they ask “what else do you have” regardless of whether they enjoyed the script or not. People want to know that you have an arsenal. People want to know that you are in it for the long haul.

Some of my lottery tickets have paid off. Not on the Powerball level, but I am happy to say that most have come up a winner, and many of them continue to pay off. This new film script is another lottery ticket. It’s not my only ticket. It’s not even the only script I’m working on at this moment. But one of these tickets is going to pay off big.

Outlines

I hate outlines. They are wonderfully useful, and an important part of the creative process, but the method itself is very uncreative. I come from an improvisational background, and I love writing a script and discovering things through the characters. Spending two weeks or a month meticulously planning that world is sometimes like a bland torture.

Blackboard

Outlines are instrumental in developing a script, whether it’s for TV, film or theater. It’s widely acknowledged that the more detailed your outline, the better your script will be. Certainly, the more detailed your outline the easier your script will be to write. If you have a thorough outline it’s impossible to have writer’s block. You always know what the scene is about and you know what comes next.

When I started my writing career I rarely outlined anything…on paper. Ideas would formulate in my head and then a brain stew would simmer, sometimes for days, sometimes for months. Once ideas started to boil over, I’d start to write. There are exceptions: my play It is Done was inspired by a dream. Within 12 hours of waking up from that dream, I had written the first third of the play, roughly 27 pages. It helped that I knew exactly how the play was going to end. To make an analogy, I knew where the slalom poles were on the mountain; I just needed to get from pole to pole.

This script has no outline. However, it’s not a free for all; I’ve though about characters, the story, some twist moments, and some very specific images. The idea first came to me seven or eight months ago. I did not write anything down in advance, when I felt I was ready I just opened my screenwriting software and started writing. So far I’m 25 pages in. I’ve hit a few points I wanted to hit, and I’ve made some wonderful discoveries along the way.

Experience tells me that without an outline, revising the script will be harder. If I get frustrated during the revision process, remind me that I brought it on myself.

The Story

Monkey-typing

When it comes to my writing, I have only one superstition: I won’t talk about the script until a first draft is finished. Like Fight Club and the C.I.A., I operate on radio silence until the words “The End” or “Fade to Black” are typed. There is no real justification for my superstition, like my idea will get stolen or armageddon will strike. I just feel that if I talk about something before it’s complete, I may analyze it in the wrong way. The angry monkey named Self-Doubt that sits on our shoulder during the writing process may stretch his legs and dance around if I open my mouth. So I keep it quiet.

This makes it hard to blog. No one wants to read a blog where nothing happens, no new information is revealed. So I have to open up a little bit. So here’s a little tidbit about the script I am writing, the genesis of the idea that sparked the story:

A woman goes to L.A. to find her sister, who has been out of contact for a long time.

That’s it! I did it. And the monkey is still snoozing on my shoulder. Everyone keep quiet and maybe he’ll stay asleep for another month so I can finish the draft.