I wrote this article almost a year ago, out of a deep desire to say something meaningful about the glorious agony of trying new things. I submitted it to a blog, but they passed. Well. They asked for a bunch … Continue reading
Good evening! I’m still here!
The Traveling Screenwriting has been a little on the nutso side these last few months. I’ve been traveling, I’ve been writing, and I’ve been blogging a TON – just over here at The Chocolate Tourist.
My screenplay has gone through many permutations (as screenplays do) in the last few months, and who the heck knows when it will be finished. Meanwhile I’ve had a bunch of other ideas.
Isn’t that the way it goes? You’re down deep in the snaggly weeds of a fourth rewrite of the script you’re committed to, and then a saucy new idea flounces by your imagination.
It’s tough not to get distracted.
In any case, I want to share this unique and insightful take on character development from Big TV Writer honcho Dan Harmon. He co-created Adult Swim and is currently working on Community.
And he’s pretty smart about telling stories.
On his blog, Dan Harmon Poops, he answers a question about writing characters. First, get your phone. Then scroll through your contacts until one of the names creates a visceral, gut reaction in you.
Ask yourself why that person’s name caused that reaction in you. Don’t try to make it an accurate answer, make it your honest, personal answer. Make it a thousand overlapping micro-answers. Don’t find categorical terminology for any of it, just dump the marbles of emotional memory all over the floor, flood the room with them. You were infatuated with Rebecca because she wore Chuck Taylors and played bass and tasted like cigarettes.
Now play with the marbles. Experiment with eliminating them, cross referencing them…didn’t Tracy also taste like cigarettes, and didn’t you hate that about her? What if Rebecca had tasted like Scope, would you have been less in love with her…?
This is a fascinating exercise. Without even consulting my phone, I can think of the names to which I react strongly. Dread, excitement, fascination, embarrassment. Now imagine pouring all those feelings into the characters on the page.
I’ve recently become aware how snobby I tend to be with regard to characters. They’re either good or bad. I’m either rooting for them or rooting against them. But the best characters – even my favorite characters – are not that simple. They’re complex, human-y concoctions of the soul as much as the imagination.
They do great things and terrible things. Motivated by all kinds of reasons.
We don’t have to figure them out.
We just put them in the middle of a story and watch what they do.
I’m always resolving to do things, and I think it’s time to make a change.
The sheer volume of life goals I set, and often expect myself to achieve, is intimidating. Or inspiring, depending on my mood.
So this January let’s try paring down the list. Not the list of what I resolve to do – no way, that would be admitting defeat which I never, almost ever do while all the blood remains in my body. Instead, let’s cut out some of the superfluous stuff I actually do, which I suspect keeps me distracted from the bigger, cooler, more interesting things I really want. You know?
I DISSOLVE: Watching TV shows I don’t care about
With the availability of Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, and DVDs from the library, it’s easy to watch an entire five seasons of Breaking Bad without realizing it. You just one-after-another it whether you really want to or not.
My new philosophy is to disoblige myself from finishing a series just because I started it. Drop Dead Diva? I gave you six episodes, and that’s all I’d really like to pursue. Downton Abbey? You lost me. I’m giving myself permission to stop watching you so I can watch something else. I mean, write more.
I DISSOLVE: Staying indoors
Being a writer and living in southern California comes with certain advantages. Why do I feel chained to my desk when I can write literally anywhere? All I need is a notebook! And probably a pen. Potentially a laptop. All of which are magnificently portable.
No more will I insist on sitting and staring at a screen to achieve verbal accumulation. To the streets, to the outdoors, to the beach!
I DISSOLVE: Driving everywhere
While LA is not the most pedestrian-friendly city in America, it is reasonably so. I have coffee, a library, several restaurants, public transportation and an ATM within 1 mile of my apartment. I have a grocery store down the street. And a clock repairman around the corner. Why jeopardize a perfectly good parking spot when I can walk to so many of life’s essential places?
I DISSOLVE: Working all day
This week I tried an experiment: knocking out my workday between the hours of 7am and noon. I won’t say it went perfectly, but I was amazed at how much I could accomplish in five hours. Since I tend to focus so intensely, I think short bursts of activity suit me much better than forcing a full day of lackluster performance. I certainly feel much more interested in writing my script!
I bet you have your own secret list of dissolutions for this year. Embrace it! Clear out the clutter! Let’s all let go of the stuff we don’t need, but we have it just because we’ve always had it, and make way for the new exciting stuff.
The concept of time off: I don’t seem to have it. But I keep looking for it, and maybe one day I’ll succeed.
After having not blogged since before Thanksgiving, I find I’m equal parts short on time and rebellious toward my editorial calendar. In case you’ve yet to hop on the latest fad, editorial calendars are these things writers are supposed to make so we know what to write on which day. Which means we have to figure that out weeks in advance.
Which, if you know me at all, you’ll understand this is simply not the way I operate. But I keep trying anyway, because I’m really good at feeling inadequate when I can’t do the stuff everybody says I’m supposed to do.
Which seems to mirror my screenwriting life at the moment, because after forcing myself to slog through yet another outline in preparation for my second draft, I now find myself passionately opposed to writing the script that goes with it.
They say women are mysterious, and I am proof.
I heard this quote from Tchaikovsky last night (composer of fantastic works such as the Nutcracker Suite), and I think we would have gotten along:
Then he also said:
If we wait for the mood, without endeavouring to meet it half-way, we easily become indolent and apathetic. We must be patient, and believe that inspiration will come to those who can master their disinclination.”
― Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
So this is me, attempting to meet the mood halfway. Against my will, against my better judgement, but with a little bit of hope… I’m sitting down to write and it might get ugly.
And it most certainly bears no resemblance to my editorial calendar.
Whether they’ve been asked for it or not, most people when confronted with a creative work of obscure origins will give an emphatic opinion about it. I’ve experienced this multiple times, and so have you.
“I thought it would be better.”
“Maybe change the beginning so it takes place in Africa.”
“Make it funny.”
All of which are actual notes that I have received from real people who read my writing.
Thankfully, I’ve also been blessed with readers who give notes that are actually helpful. The thing is, between the helpful stuff and the unhelpful thoughtless stuff and the amazing completed stuff there lies a Great Wasteland of Indecision.
Today I would like to consider some strategies for crossing that wasteland and coming out the other side – as a better writer with a better script. I want to consider these strategies today, because today I am a lonely writer plodding through the parched, pathless sand. And I need to remember what the heck for.
So in no particular order, I give you these…
Possibly Helpful And At The Very Least Completely Innocuous Thoughts:
1. Be indecisive and okay with it
When I’m fresh off a rough draft high, it’s tough to hear that it’s not good enough. Even though I know this, I’ve been anticipating it even before Fade Out, it’s still a thing to be processed emotionally and intellectually. At first, you will have no idea where to go with these constructively critical responses. You will just have to stare at the wall for awhile and let it sink in.
I don’t know if anyone can relate to this, but when I finish a draft or a revision, I honestly feel like it’s the best I can do. So when the inevitable feedback comes, it’s like: I can’t. I can’t make it any better than it is, because this is my best.
But of course you can. I can. It just doesn’t feel that way at first.
2. Try not to listen to the voices of darkness
As if we don’t have enough inner chatter, between characters and plot shenanigans and the angsty inner story every writer is really trying to tell, our doubts and fears want to point out a few things too. It gets super noisy.
So do what you gotta do to boost confidence, quiet unease, and quit comparing yourself to others, but know that the noise will probably never disappear altogether and that’s okay. It’s normal. We all have it.
Of course if you are successful at ditching the voices altogether, then that is really neat.
3. Make two piles
Keep and reject. Of the comments I received on my script, which ones resonated with me (whether I like it or not) and which ones do I completely disagree with?
Some feedback will hit home. I know it’s true, even if I have no clue where to begin implementing it. Other feedback is just not connecting for me, no matter which angle I view it from, and when that happens I think we are totally fine to disregard it.
Or, if you’re like me and just have to believe that everyone in the world sees something useful that you don’t: try to get to the spirit of the critique. If someone feels my protagonist lacks motivation in Act 1, and I can’t seem to add anything that works for me, then maybe something else in Act 1 needs to go.
See, this is why revisions are exhausting. But worth it. Probably.
But whatever changes I make, I know that I as the writer am responsible for them. So I’m not making any changes I don’t feel in my gut are working for me. And I don’t think that’s arrogance, it’s just being real about the story I’m trying to tell. And no one else really knows what I’m shaping in my head – it’s up to me to bring it out and show them.
4. Don’t give up
As I write and rewrite, I have to keep connecting with the core of the story – whatever fascinated me with it in the very beginning. Whether it’s a character flaw or a curious world, I need to keep enthralling myself with that basic element. Otherwise I get lost.
The fun stuff is what keeps me oriented, keeps me telling the story I set out to tell.
And with any luck, after all the critique and deep dark questioning and sweating blood, we end up with an even better, clearer, more compelling version of that idea nugget than we ever thought we could write.
Onward we trudge, faithful screenwriters! For we shall cross the Wasteland of Indecision and reach the Promised Land of a Finished Screenplay. Keep hope alive.
Being a writer, I seem to have befriended a bunch of other writers. We sometimes like to show each other the stuff we’ve written and ask the fabulously flippant yet incredibly dangerous: “What do you think?”
What do I think?
So many things. I think very many things about another writer’s screenplay. But I can’t tell you all the things I’m thinking, because 1: it will be overwhelming, disorganized and completely unproductive and 2: you’ll never speak to me again.
So in the interest of actually helping my fellow writer come up with a better script, I have a few basic strategies that help me craft a useful response. Three, to be precise.
1. Start with the good news. There’s always something encouraging and good about a person’s writing. I don’t mean a trite introductory nicety to delay the inevitable – but a genuine, “these are the things I admire about your style/concept/characters/dialogue and this is what I enjoyed about it,” kind of thing.
Some folks like to comment on each part of the script as they go through it – chronologically so to speak. So as they come across something they like, they note it in order. Even so, I still recommend starting with an overall happy note of feel-good optimism, because even if a script is bad – like, redefining my standard of bad – it still took discipline and courage to write it. And that’s worth commending, even if it smells worse than feet.
2. Look at the big picture. When you tally up all the problems with a script, what are the common themes? Are there any bad moves that snowball into other bad moves? Is there a chicken and egg situation?
It’s a lot easier to think about improving a few major pillars of a story than to try and get your head around a lot of smaller problems. Fundamentally, this is really the writer’s problem not the reader’s – but since I’m giving feedback I may as well make it good.
3. Inspire improvement. It’s tempting to suggest specific changes to solve problems, but I try to avoid this. I’m not writing the script. I’m not rewriting it. I’m just trying to help give some perspective to my friends so they can do the rewriting.
The last thing I want is to take over another writer’s story and start pushing it in a direction they don’t want to go. So rather than offering specific solutions, I’m just trying to inspire better writing. It’s probably not as difficult as I’m making it sound. You know what I mean, right?
Even after all that, I still reread my notes and take a deep breath before I hit send. And usually I get a reply.
Thanking me for my thoughts and expressing eagerness to work on the next draft.
Just as long as you’re still speaking to me.
No two writers are the same. Perhaps the process of creativity is one facet of the work world which is continually elusive, never really containable or describable. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern or formula that we can follow to replicate another’s success.
And yet we keep trying.
It seems I’m always comparing myself to other writers and spectacularly popular artists, trying to glean fresh inspiration and awareness from their example. It works up to a point, but there are only so many books to buy, videos to watch, and classes to take before I just have to sit down and face the page on my own.
I’m reading a fantastic book: The Forest for the Trees, by Betsy Lerner. Betsy is a book editor, writing to writers about the magnificent perpelxitude that is a writer’s life.
In a charming style that is so completely relatable, Betsy describes her perception of writers before she chose a profession that would grant her an intimate acquaintance with them – all the zig zaggy foibles, neuroses, and arrogance of them.
Now that she’s seen behind the curtain, those lofty perceptions are gone. But the fact remains that many of us continue clinging to this false perception that other writers are so different, so much more consistent and disciplined, so much more knowledgeable than we are.
We all – every one of us – is in process.
We all struggle sometimes. We all feel highs of elation when a perfect idea comes to us and the story seems to write itself. We all get stuck in the miry clay of creation, with that mysterious shape that could become literally anything. We all wonder if what we’re making will be any good. Or if it will be so good that no one gets it, and our treasured art is going to grace the walls of somebody’s poo palace.
Every masterpiece had to start somewhere. There are no straight lines on the graph charting the progress of a creative work – it’s jaggedy and unpredictable. But it’s always an uphill climb.
I’m cultivating a new appreciation for this remarkable, unrepeatable process.
Participating in a writers’ group is a super way to do this. Reading and critiquing the work of my friends (and being read and critiqued myself) allows me to get in on that process, to participate in the despair of a fledgling new script and the exhilaration of watching it morph into something wonderful.
I’ll never forget the first month of my ScreenwritingU class, we had to build a story structure around the germ of a concept for our script, and then share it. As soon as I began reading, my heart sank – how did I get stuck in a class full of terrible writers? This is going to be awful.
Gamely, I considered several offerings from my fellow students and did my best to offer some encouragement and distill my long list of critiques to just a few of the most basic (and – I hope – helpful) suggestions.
Fast forward six months, and I was amazed at how much better everyone’s scripts were turning out!
But you see, it wasn’t that these were bad writers in the first place. They were just in process. They were allowing me to see what they were making before it was finished, before they even knew what it would become.
It’s a sacred privilege, and one that should be embraced carefully.
So if you’re reading this and feeling overwhelmed by the latest amazing book/artwork/movie/performance you’ve compared yourself to, please be reassured. You will get there. We will all get there.
Advice from established writers can be… tricky.
On the one hand, these are the wise who have gone before – I should lap up their shining words like so many drops of water from the fountain of youth.
On the other hand, do I really want more voices in my head telling me what I’m doing wrong and offering guidelines for being better?
When confronted this morning with yet another list of verbal gems from established Hollywood, I intended to bypass it and carry on with my writing. Blithely complying with the oft-repeated wisdom of the wise who have gone before, to simply write. “Writers write.” End of story.
I really needed some fresh enthusiasm though, so I clicked.
Just for a quick skim.
Within seconds I realized what I was reading was not simply the same wise words and inspirational quips that never fail to drive traffic and sell ads. These are stories from real people who struggle with real writing the way I am really struggling with it now. Little fizzes of awakening started zapping through my body, like instinct was meeting experience and being validated. In a way that I really need to be validated at this particular point in my career.
In a way that makes me want to write.
Nicole Holofcener: I used to do [note cards], and it really just fucked me up. It would sort of kill the fun, and it would make me realize that I didn’t know how to structure a screenplay. Or I didn’t have the answers that you’re supposed to have when you outline a script, and I figured out somehow that I didn’t need to have the answers. And I would just start writing and see what happens, and usually, what happens is a mess, but a fixable one, and that’s kind of how I start.
Yes! Me too! I keep doing note cards because that is what we’re supposed to do, but maybe it is killing my fun. Maybe I need to come up with a way to do this that is fun for me.
Right? I mean honestly, does this not make sense?
I hope you will read and be encouraged by the rest of the article. Good stuff.
Let’s keep going.
I did something that I’m kind of intimidated about.
The Screenwriting subReddit (Screddit) threw down a challenge to write a full screenplay every month.
Screddit Attack is a spin off of the now defunct Script Frenzy. Except we’re opening it up to one hour drama’s as well as half hour comedies. To make things fair, writers who wish to write a 30 minute show must write two within the month. It’s a contest against yourself and a way to get all of us to start writing!
“A script in a month?” you say. “Every month?” you say.
Ah, but there are prizes.
For every month that the challenge is successfully met, you get a ribbon. Next to your name. On Reddit. In different colors, depending on how many months you accumulate.
So now the truth comes out – I will do anything for colored ribbons.
Even write a screenplay in a month.
Dear Inktip Pitch Summit,
Your distinguished event is coming up in just over a week, and I’m beginning to sweat. What will happen if I stumble over my words and give a poor presentation? Will I be eaten alive and disgraced forever after?
Sweaty in Palm Beach
Please don’t fret about your pitch. Some nerves are to be expected, but remember the producers and agents in attendance are regular people just like you, and they just want to hear a good story.
So simply tell your story and let them react to it. You may find that the simple act of telling it over and over will give you new insights into your characters and make you even more excited to see it brought to the big screen.
Just imagine your star on Hollywood Boulevard… It all begins somewhere!
I’m packing for my trip to Burbank, and am concerned about the dress code. Someone told me people dress up as their characters for the pitch meetings. Should I do that? And where am I ever going to get my hands on a mermaid costume at this late hour?
Finless in Wyoming
We don’t know who may have told you to dress like a mermaid, but we highly encourage you to abandon that effort. Simple business casual is preferred.
Of course a pair of seashells is never frowned upon should you wish to save them for the pool.
What if I pitch my script and a producer requests to read it? Will I become an overnight success, famous, and rich beyond my wildest dreams?
Dreaming in South Poughkeepsie