Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Support For Writers

Sunday, September 19th, 2010

A few months ago I was sitting at my desk, minding my own business, when the world started listing to the right. I caught myself just before hitting the floor. Fortunately I hadn’t fainted nor was it an inner ear infection; my office chair had just snapped off at the stem.

This did not fit into my schedule. I quickly replaced the wreck with what was available to me, a wicker chair from the living room. It did the trick. For a while.

See, I’ve learned to read the signals. My body’s signals. If my left eye starts to twitch, it means I’m starting to stress a deadline. If my stomach gets queasy it means I’m starting to stress a deadline. If I can’t seem to fall asleep it means I’m starting to stress a deadline. However, if my back starts to get chronically sore for no apparent reason, it often means there’s something wrong with my chair…

Turns out Ol’ Wicker was starting to see some stress of its own. It seems that over the past few months that I’ve been planted in its seat, the wicker chair’s legs have been splaying outward like Bambi on the frozen pond. The result was that the chair was incrementally sinking lower and my back was incrementally getting more sore.

I’ve learned from achy experience that it can take as little as an inch of height disparity between your chair desk to completely destroy your back.

So Ol’ Wicker is back, recuperating from its service, in the living room and I’m breaking in a brand new office chair. We’re still getting to know each other but with a little time and Young Officy’s pneumatic height cylinder, I think we’ll get there. I certainly feel like I’m finally getting the support I need at any rate.

You’ve got to have those day to day things in order for everything else to fall into place.

Sam & Jim go to Haven

Monday, July 19th, 2010

Many moons ago I stumbled upon a podcast. An unabridged, lo-fi and hopelessly honest podcast by a pair of restaurateurs from Minnesota who moved to Hollywood with the dream of being paid to write. Earlier this month, the SyFy channel (US) and Showcase here in Canada premiered Haven.

Haven is a supernatural series based on a Stephen King novel and executive produced (that’s TV speak for written & created by) by a pair of restaurateurs from Minnesota; Sam Ernst and Jim Dunn.

The Sam & Jim Go To Hollywood podcast (http://ow.ly/2dtBp) contains hours of material that charts the rise of two writers for better and worse in real time. This isn’t revisionist history, or a biography; it’s a real account, spanning years, of the trials and tribulations by these guys learning as they go. What’s more, it’s full of useful insights on the industry and tips for writers by guys who went balls out to achieve their dream and succeeded.

Bravo.

Tweeting Out The Good Stuff

Monday, May 31st, 2010

Once upon a time (on the internet) it took a bit of effort to get the thoughts from your brain out to the fickle masses. Now it can be done faster than you can say retraction. For the consumer of this material this means two things where entertainment, in its broadest sense, is concerned: On the bright side, a wellspring of content. On the not so bright side, the other 99.9% of the internet.

But for a purveyor of entertainment, in the broadest sense, the new expedience of this medium recently brought to mind a question. Blasphemous as it may sound, I think that Twitter posts and Facebook status updates can sometimes (albeit rarely) contain as much power and value as the single moral that might lay buried deep within the pages of a book or the frames of a feature film. Take it easy Twitter, don’t get excited, you’re far from breaking new ground on this. The tightly bound truism of a memorable proverb or the artful efficiency of a Japanese haiku has been around for centuries. The difference now is the ubiquity and as I eluded to at the top; the instantaneousness of it all.

And it’s that instantaneousness that brought about my recent question. Should I be tweeting out the good stuff?

I mean, as a writer - as a cultivator of ideas - should I be using these instant thought-to-web tools thereby circumventing their incubation period in my brain? If I’m writing a comedy I’m going to need material. But if I tweet out every hilarious joke or observation that I make (to myself) ten times a day will I be draining my own supply.

Is my brain a renewable resource of entertainment?

During my darker days I may worry that it’s not. But after letting the question incubate in the ol’ noggin for a while I’ve decided that in fact it is. Having a venue where one can instantly reach the fickle masses with one’s writing is a pretty good way to sharpen those skills. The more you output the more you need to work that grey matter to create new ideas, new content. So, I say, yes to tweeting out the good stuff! Yes to keeping the idea nuggets flowing!

For other people, that is.

I’m not big twitterer myself…

… It would be really great if I had something clever to say in under 140 characters to cap this whole thing off…

Hm.

Damn it.

My Process (3 of 3) Script & Assets

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

Okay, by now, all the parts have been shaped and I’m ready to put the actual script together. And at this point, I have to say, it’s really as simple as that. With the help of my notes I’ve got my theme to keep in mind. And with my character (and “world“) profiles to reference it’s just a matter of going through my outline and fleshing out each scene in detail and dialogue.

A brief word on formatting. Stick to standard screenplay formatting, you can pick it up easily by reading established industry scripts and fill in the blanks with Google. If you can get your hands on Final Draft, great, if you can’t then there’s a great way to set up Word so that your F-keys will be programmed with the six basic line formats you’ll need in a screenplay (location, character, dialogue, etc). You have to use the Style option (under the Format menu) and pre-program each F-key with 12pt Courier font, the specific margins for each line and whether or not ALL CAPS is necessary. It’s a hack but it does a great job.

As far as the actual writing of the script goes, as before I’m not going to try to recycle all the rules and tips about storytelling or what makes good dialogue. I will simply say, I try to give each character a voice of their own (not simply my voice) and I try to keep action lines to a minimum in the description department. I’ll gladly spend hours crafting one perfectly worded sentence that introduces a character by both describing them physically and giving the reader some background on who they are. Introductions are as important in a script as they are in real life.

And finally, the script is written. Fade out.

Put it in a drawer. Walk away. Take satisfaction in the fact that you’ve accomplished something. Do anything but think about it. Especially about how, in two weeks, when you take it out of that drawer you’re going to blue-pen it to pieces and basically rewrite it.

Rewriting is a whole other post altogether and I’ll leave that for another time.

What I did want to further include here are what I call my assets. The assets are the things I write once I’ve got my “final” draft written and am ready to send my script off into the world. Because there’s something you should know - and I mention this because I think it’s important albeit a little bit depressing, so don’t get too bent out of shape about it, fact of life and all that…

No one wants to read your script.

It’s true. For most people, even (and perhaps especially) people who’s job it is to read scripts, it’s a daunting prospect. So you have to lure them in. You have to shake your assets.

First up - and probably the most difficult so you may as well start thinking about it early - is the log line. Sum up your entire 90 page masterpiece in one sentence. No run-on sentences allowed. And if that’s not a tall enough order, make sure the log line has the tone of your script’s genre (if it’s a comedy, make the line funny; a thriller, the line thrilling; etc). Log lines are a whole other post too - maybe even a whole other blog. It’s like a marketing haiku. But if you do it right, the log line is the first thing that’s going to peak your prospective reader’s interest. Or completely kill it. No pressure.

Next up, the short synopsis or what I think of as the script’s one sheet. I usually break mine up into 3 paragraphs, (1.5 line spacing) one for each act, and try to keep it simple and to the point. Protagonist, antagonist, plot, twists, resolution. I try not to be coy by writing a conclusion that begs for an ellipsis. If you’re giving a producer a one sheet synopsis you don’t want to leave them hanging. Producers usually want to know right off the bat if you’re pitching them a ride off into the sunset or a tragedy.

Also handy is a treatment. Depending on who you ask a treatment can be anything between your one sheet and a 30 page document. But really, if you’re going to make a long winded treatment, then your reader may as well be reading the entire script. Because of the way I proceed in getting to my outline, it’s not a big stretch to transform that into a treatment. It just has to be cleaned up from my personal note taking voice and shaped into a narrative play-by-play of the story without the dialogue.

Assets. The skin over the meat over the skeleton over the heart of that little thought that popped into your head one day while you were out mushroom hunting.

And that is my process.

My Process (2 of 3) Characters & Outline

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Can I start writing the script yet? Oh, heavens… No.

In part one of this little story of my method I mentioned that my notes would start to form the story in broad strokes. The next step for me is then to beef things up into an outline while refining the details.

At this point there’s really no creative writing going on, per se. This was a big mental hurtle for me to overcome. When I used to write long or short form fiction I just kind of dove in. I guess I even did so in early screenwriting for my animated shorts. It was a little counter intuitive for me to treat a story as clinically as I do now. It’s truly the opposite of spontaneity and for a while it felt to me as the anathema to poetry. But I think that was really just me being lazy. Not seeing that there’s enormous creativity to be had in properly structuring things from the outset. It’s the creative process slowed down.

So the outline: A new text doc on the computer and it’s broken down into short paragraphs. Each paragraph starts with a location slug (INT./EXT. etc) and a short summary of each scene. This is no different than the old school cue card method or the new school old school cue card feature you’ll find in Final Draft. I like the simple text doc method because it’s easy on the forests and I can expand upon the paragraphs/scenes indefinitely.

But wait! There’s something slowing me down. The loose story is there but it’s hard to figure out how all the parts fit together; how to flesh out the details. Why? Because I don’t know who I’m writing about yet.

Who are my characters? For me the outlining process overlaps with my process for creating the characters.

This is where some psychology 101 classes can be really helpful. In the opinion of this humble writerly type guy, writing is all about psychology. Be it tapping into the psychology of the reader (or viewer) or the psychology of one character towards another. We’re really only concerned with the latter at this point:

For this reason, I write a detailed background for each principal character. A biography. I start with childhood and work my way right up to the point where my story begins. I include essential elements that would have impacted this character’s personality: Family life, social circle, upbringing, interests, etc. I usually include some anecdotes too. Experiences that this character has lived through that may mirror some of the experiences they will face in the actual story. The details of these biographies will never make it into the script. They are purely a way for me to design the character. They are a reference guide for later. They help me figure out what motivates the character and can even help me figure out details about their speech patterns when it comes time to write dialogue.

When I was getting set to shoot Refrain I actually found another use for these character profiles. I shared them with the actors. I wanted to give them background on their characters to help them find the motivation behind what was in the script.

So! With my character profiles written I can now plug away further on the outline. These two elements usually give and take from each other. Sometimes the outline may call for a character to an action to move the plot forward but maybe I haven’t crafted the motivation for that action into that character’s psyche profile - no problem, I can just modify that profile to make it fit. The important thing for me is to have a sound psychology for each character and a sound storyline.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of books on storytelling. Character arcs, plot points, the hero’s journey, all that stuff. My point here isn’t to go over all of that - it’s simply to describe my process of writing a screenplay. The glib version of everything you’re going to find in those books is this: You’ve got a character, she’s doing her thing, living her life, when something happens. It’s a conflict with her enjoyable day to day life. She is faced with handling this something. It looks like she may be able to cope when things suddenly get worse. Holy shit, she’s in trouble now and things just keep going downhill… Oh no, how is she ever going to get out of this situation? But then, she digs deep, finds something inside her that she didn’t know she had and triumphs. She is changed forever. Screen black.

You can also learn this secret to storytelling by watching any movie that makes it to cinemas.

I’ve got my outline (or treatment, at this point, depending on who you’re talking to and how you’ve formatted it) as well as my (secret) character profiles. I’ve added a skeleton to my story’s heart and circulatory system. Next up: Putting meat on the bones and a let’s not forget the packaging.