Monday, October 31, 2005

The Reading: Do-It-Yourself Script Consulting

The end of this screenplay is so close I can smell it. I’m actually allowing myself to think I might finish it by the deadline (midnight tonight). As of tomorrow, one way or another, the project will be over.

Only three scenes are left to write from scratch. With any luck, I’ll have some time left over to tweak some of the literary motifs throughout. (Oh yes, even cheap horror / thriller flicks can have high-brow aspirations.)

For instance, doors are an important element of the screenplay. If I have an extra few minutes, I want to make sure that my use of them is consistent. Every time a door opens in the movie, it should usher in a sense of urgency. Every time one closes, it should conveys a sense of loss.

But that’s for a bit later this afternoon. Last night, two friends were kind enough to sit down with the still-rough draft and do a reading with me. I can’t thank them enough.

Any time I think a screenplay is finished, it is an enormous help for me to be able to hear the entire thing from start to finish. (While in the normal course of events, I would hardly consider this project polished enough to inflict on someone else, the calendar compels me to skip the usual editing process for the sake of simply finishing…) Some things a read-through helps me learn:

Does Each Character Have a Voice?
I usually assign the speaking parts to the people reading with me. It’s very helpful to listen to someone else speak the words. I try to pay special attention to whether or not each character speaks in a distinctive voice. It’s much easier to determine whether or not a speech characteristic “works” when I can hear someone else articulate it.

Is That How You’d Say It?
Hearing the words out loud as dialogue lets me know if the sentence structure is correct. Often, the readers will inadvertently “fix” dialogue to make it flow better. As long as their changes don’t alter the meaning of what’s being said, I’ll change the script to make the words seem more natural.

Can You See It?
I try to read as little of the dialogue as possible. Instead, I usually read all the slug lines (INT. JOHN’S APARTMENT – DAY) and action instructions out loud. That way, I know that everyone involved in the read-through has been exposed to every word. Not because I need to saturate them with my brilliance, but because I want to know if the actions are clear. I want to know if they can see what’s going to be on-screen. I also want to find out if it’s interesting enough to hold their attention, or do I need to find ways to ratchet the action up a bit.

Does It Make Sense?
This is The Big One. A read-through helps me find out whether or not I’m the only one who “gets it.” If a character’s motivation is contrived or muddy, it shows up here.

The trick is getting readers who will be honest enough to say when something isn’t clear to them. But if you can find them, they are invaluable. They don’t need to tell you how to fix something. All they need to do is point out what is getting lost in the translation from your brain to the printed page. If they’re exceptionally good friends, they might even let you bounce off “what if I did this?” scenarios, and tell you what would make the story stronger.

If you have a screen- or stage-play that you’d love to see performed, an informal reading might be just the thing you need. It will let you hear your words and analyze them. It can help you explore story strengths and weaknesses. And it might give you the key you need to make your script extraordinary. All you need to do is make a few copies and spring for the pizza. Not a bad price to pay for an in-depth story consultation!

For days, I've told myself that I will not watch “Batman Begins” until I finish this script. I've got the DVD ready and waiting. But first, three scenes demand my attention...

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Dealing With “The Wall”

Regular readers are probably aware that I’ve been working on this “challenge” screenplay (see “Let the Games Begin," from August 16). With five days to go, and only 10 pages left to write, finishing it looks eminently possible.

The giant foot tapping the brakes of my euphoria, however, is the realization that it will take more than 10 pages to tell what needs to be told. Which means writing until it makes sense to say “The End.” And then editing and cutting all those words and phrases that were so painstakingly crafted.

I can’t wait to start the edit, because that will mean that the writing is over. This is the hardest part of a project for me. It always makes me think of university, with finals week approaching and being tired from burning too many candles at too many ends for too long. I can look at my calendar and know when it will all be over. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how it’s going to be anything but a train wreck.

A friend watched my 2 year-old daughter so I could have 5 hours of uninterrupted time today. Bliss! I caught up on e-mails and quickly got to work. I actually envisioned being a powerhouse of prose and finishing the rough draft…

About an hour and a half into the morning, I hit The Wall. I’m not talking about Writer’s Block. I don’t believe that exists. It’s not that I couldn’t find something to say. I just couldn’t find the right something.

I wrote – and deleted – scene after scene, page after page. I knew the problem had been coming for some time now. I have the screenplay all mapped out – have my outline in front of me, in fact. I know what happens. I know how it ends. But there’s one segue that I’ve known was weak from the very beginning.

In other words, I knew A, B, and D. I just couldn’t figure out how to make C happen without it feeling so implausibly contrived as to destroy any suspension of disbelief that may have accrued throughout the movie.

Here’s hoping that my problem is an isolated one, plaguing only me. Here’s hoping that you have no idea what I’m talking about, and that you have never met a wall in your creative endeavors.

However, should you ever find yourself faced with a looming Writing Wall, allow me to suggest some tactics that work for me:

Ask for directions. Talk to someone. Tell a friend, a spouse, or a Significant Other about the situation as it stands. Explain the characters’ motivations, briefly state the story thus far, and tell what happens later. Ask for suggestions for ways of connecting what is already written with what Must Happen next. Listen carefully. Do not shoot ideas down. Often, a fresh perspective can help find a plausible path through the obstruction.

Talk to yourself. If possible, use a Dictaphone or Memory Stick so you can revisit your nuggets of inspiration later. Talk yourself through the problem. Explain why things have to happen in a certain way. Dissect the weakness in the story line. Is it a poorly defined character? Is it a too-obvious coincidence? It is a lack of conflict? Is it a too-easily resolved conflict? Nothing is carved in stone, at this point, so analyze your story from every possible angle. It is entirely possible that you will find a way over the wall on your own.

Educate yourself. Today, my wall was caused by my lack of understanding of a particular protocol. “Write what you know” is a truism because trying to write what you don’t know invariably leads to holes in logic, or presents credibility issues. Thank God for the internet. Get online and research what’s giving you trouble. If you know of someone with experience in a related area, don’t be afraid to ask for a reality check. Learn enough to climb the wall – then get on with your story.

Re-examine Your Characters. The best possible advice I can ever give you is to let your characters tell their story. Don’t try to force them into a story of your creating. If your characters are round, full-bodied, complex entities, they have enough hopes and dreams and secrets for several stories. Maybe they’d rather tell a story you haven’t yet considered. Taking a closer look at your characters may bring a whole new tenor to your work.

Do Not Give Up. Keep working at the Wall, approaching it from different angles, and with different tactics, until you eventually just wear it down. Remember – you built the thing in the first place. You wrote the story. You imagined the events that led to the wall. You are certainly capable of leading your characters and your audience over it, and continuing the adventure on the other side.

A gentle reminder to all of you who took me up on the two month challenge in August. The FINAL DEADLINE is Monday, October 31, at 12:00 midnight, EST. Good Luck!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Rider’s Wednesday: Three Fall Gotta-do’s

Today’s musings are about those things you gotta do before snow flies. The things that are SO easy to put off till tomorrow. The things you keep telling yourself, “I really need to _____” soon. Those things.

And so, in the interest of efficiency, here are three items on a handy, easily cross-off-able list. If it’ll help, print it off, tack it up in the barn, and ceremoniously black out each item as you do it. Soon, you’ll be ready to put your feet up and sip hot cocoa by the fire – feeling smugly superior that you got your gottta-do’s done.

1. Weigh Everyone
As the season changes and your horses start to eat more hay and less grass, it’s a good idea to check their weight.

A cheap combination weight tape / hand measure is readily available at most farm supply and tack stores for under $3. (If you have drafts, opt for a draft horse version. Standard horse weight tapes rarely measure above 1600 pounds.)

Follow the instructions on the tape to find your horse’s weight. The tape may not be exact, but it will give a fairly accurate ballpark of how heavy your horse is. It’s a good idea to record and date the measurement in your horse’s vet file.

Periodically throughout the winter (every time the farrier trims, for instance), re-measure the horse and make sure he is maintaining his weight while temperatures are low.

2. Worm Everyone
Using your recent weigh-in information, purchase a good quality wormer for your horse – and use it. Resist the temptation to empty the entire syringe of wormer into your horse’s mouth. Dial the wormer to your horse’s weight and administer only the specified dose.

Many people like to use a product that includes targeted tapeworm medication when worming after the first frost. In any case, it’s a good idea to rotate wormers on occasion, so your horse doesn’t build up a tolerance to a particular product.

Remember to make sure there is no food in the horse’s mouth before administering the wormer. Once you’ve depressed the plunger, then elevate the horse’s chin for a bit, to ensure that the dose doesn’t just roll off the tongue and glop all over you. That doesn’t do anyone any good…

3. Clean Sheaths
Go ahead – make all the jokes you want about starring on the Farmyard Porn Channel. The fact is, if you have stallions or geldings, this is just one of those gotta-do’s.

No, I won’t go into detail here. Go to your local farm supply or tack store and buy a container of Excalibur, or similar product (under $10). Also pick up some disposable gloves. Bar anyone who threatens to videotape the procedure from your barn and get to work.

A few tips:
* Don’t use cold water straight from the hose. Have a heart!

* If you are having problems getting the cleaner where it needs to go, squeeze a good amount in one of the fingers of the disposable gloves. Poke a hole in the finger and squeeze the cleaner out of it when you’re in position.

* It’s not a bad idea to wear steel-toed boots for this job. Some horses enjoy this WAY too much. Others dance around and try to mash your toes.

* Remind yourself that you could literally be saving your horse’s life. Dirt and oil build-up can lead to all sorts of problems including abscesses and kidney failure. Somehow, the whole life-saving thing makes it all worthwhile.

Other Updates
Spent a lot of time on the phone and online today, tying up loose ends. Ah -- success. All that stands between me and the end of the month now is FINISHING this blasted SCREENPLAY. Got some good work done today. A friend has offered to watch the Little One tomorrow. The end is in sight... with 5 days left to write.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Foreword March! – How to Write a Fantastic Foreword

So, you’ve been asked to write a foreword to a book, hmm? To begin with, kudos and congratulations are in order. Forewords aren’t written by just anyone, you know. Generally, the only people who are asked to write such things are Those Who Matter.

The foreword serves to introduce the author and the book to the world at large. You have been asked to write it because you have paid your dues in some manner. Maybe you are a recognizable name within a certain field. Perhaps you have distinguished yourself in a way that is relevant to the book’s subject. Perchance you’re just the most famous person the author knows and he or she is calling in a favor.

So – yay, you! Now what do you do?

First, read yesterday’s blog. It explains what a foreword is, what purpose it serves, and why it’s good for you to write one. Go ahead. It’ll take you three minutes. It took me longer than that to write it, and it may help shave hours of painful head banging against whatever wall may be nearby. I’ll wait…

Next, if possible, get your hands on the manuscript you’ll be forewording. If you are the conscientious sort, and if it interests you, read it. If you’re not (or it doesn’t), at least skim the Table of Contents or read a random chapter on something you find worthwhile.

Then, write out a short anecdote about something that happened in your life that has some bearing – no matter how far-fetched – on what the book is about. If you’re not sure of the book’s purpose, write about something that relates to the chapter you just read.

Feel free to name-drop shamelessly here. If you won an Olympic medal, reference an Olympic event. If you defended a famous celebrity in a murder trial, mention it. Don’t hesitate to remind people why you are well-known in the first place – just in case they can’t remember why they know you. (The public is notoriously dim-witted, with a frighteningly short attention span.)

Now, tell me something about the author. Have you met? How long have you known each other (or known OF each other)? Can you relate a personal, non-humiliating anecdote about the author? What about telling of something the author did that affected you?

Remember, part of your job is to introduce the author to the world. Do your job as well as possible.

If you don’t know the author, rather than admitting that you’re writing for a total stranger, talk about the relevance of the project and rave about how much you believe in its validity. If you can’t do that, perhaps you’re not the one to be writing this particular piece of prose…

Finally, you will appear veddy literary and oh-so-clever if you can reference an idea from your opening paragraph again at the end. Think of it as bringing the whole foreword full circle.

If, for instance, you related a story that involves your mother, something as simple as “I know Mom would approve” will do the trick. If you talked about a particularly odious elementary school teacher, you might try something like “If you see Mrs. Schaffer, tell her I know who put the tack on her chair… and I ain’t telling!”

Remember, a foreword is like a letter of introduction from one friend to another. It’s best if it’s a bit chatty, engaging, and personal. Tell tales. Spin a yarn or two. Open a tiny little window into a personal moment. The more readable you make it, the more people will read it, rather than skipping it entirely and diving straight into the book. And that, of course, is the whole point!

Waiting for the Phone to Ring

First thing yesterday morning, I sent an e-mail to He Who Will Not Call, telling him that since I’ve been waiting over a month to hear anything of note from him, since the end of the month was approaching, and since I had put a few too many projects on hold for him which were now coming due, I was going to bump him from my list of Things to Do. I asked him to contact me at his earliest convenience so we could reschedule time for me to work with him on his edit.

It worked! I must have hit a nerve. After weeks of blowing me off, ignoring my e-mails and phone calls, and disregarding the publisher’s attempts to contact him, I heard from him in less than 20 minutes!

He’s been busy. (!) He’s sorry. He’d have some time free at the beginning of this week. Would it be all right if he called so we could work on the one question I needed for a particular chapter?

Well, it would have been all right if he’d called – which he didn’t. But I suggested that since he had two and a half days free, it would be best for his project if he got to work writing the major missing pieces rather than worrying about a single shortfall.

I wonder if he’ll take my advice.

I wonder if he’ll call.

I wonder if he knows how much his behavior reminds me of high school…

In Other News

I learned this weekend that Sharie's newest CD release, Let’s Talk About Heaven, which includes "Carol of the Horse," is getting airplay on some independent Christian stations. She's already had several calls from DJ's asking for autographed CD's to give away, and the project was just released a few weeks ago! Cool, huh?

On a purely "nifty" note, I went shopping in South Bend with a friend of mine on Friday. We went to Barnes & Noble and PetSmart. Both places had copies of Clinton's book in stock. I must admit, it was perversely gratifying to see! (One looks for excitement where one can find it.)

I’m on page 71 of the “challenge screenplay,” with less than a week to go to finish it. (It has to be at least 90 pages.) Rrrrrr! I will not watch “Batman Begins” until this screenplay is finished. I will not watch “Batman Begins” until this screenplay is finished… Ah, now THAT’s motivation!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Foreword Thinking -- An Introduction to the Introduction

Forewords are on my mind, as we are currently working on nailing down the exact verbiage of the foreword for Geoff’s book. Today – what a foreword IS.

The foreword is a strange literary beast. It introduces the larger work and / or the author – much as an emcee introduces a keynote speaker. It doesn’t contribute any additional information about the book’s subject matter, but it serves as a means of validating the book’s existence.

Often, the foreword of a book is written by someone that the general public recognizes more readily than the actual author. A foreword may be only a few paragraphs long – yet the foreword’s writer may share byline space on the cover. (“With foreword by Mr. Great Muckety Muck.”)

A foreword’s primary purpose is to boost book sales. It’s a means of introducing someone who may not be well-known via an expert in the field or a celebrity (who, by dint of being famous, is an expert on everything).

Forewords often have a personal, chatty feel to them. The foreword writer may reminisce about how he or she met the author of the main project, thus adding weight to the author’s credentials (“Oooh! He knows Mr. Great Muckety Muck! He must know what he’s writing about…”).

Forewords also tend to involve anecdotes that – ideally – have something to do with the work at hand. These generally serve as a practical or real-world example of whatever themes or ideas may be expressed later in the book itself. Again, they serve to simply reinforce that the writer knows his or her stuff.

But a foreword isn’t all about the book it introduces. If done correctly, the foreword can be as valuable a tool for the person writing it as for the author of the actual book.

To begin with, writing a foreword keeps the writer’s name in front of the public. This can be especially useful if there is significant lag time before another major project (book, album, movie…) that features the foreword’s writer is to be released. It is also a plus if the person writing the foreword is not known primarily as a writer. It can broaden the writer’s audience and, perhaps, appeal to a whole new segment of the population.

The foreword writer has the opportunity to remind people of why he or she is well-known – or at least qualified to write a foreword to a work – in the first place. A simple “author of 100 Secrets of the Super Stars” after the writer’s name at the end of the foreword serves as a frame of reference and solidifies credibility.

And that, in a nutshell, is all you ever wanted to know about a foreword. It’s a means of introducing an author and a new work to the world, while keeping the foreword writer in the public eye. Tomorrow, I’ll discuss how to write one.

Tying Up Loose Ends
Today is a "loose end" tamer.

Because of compatability issues with Maxell DVD's, the copying of "Carol of the Horse" did not go as planned on Friday. It pays to get Memorex. Or Panasonic. Now I know.

Anyway, they'll go out today, accompanied by many prayers and happy thoughts. One is going to my friend (who has a friend in acquisitions of the Perfect Publisher), in the hopes that she'll like what she sees enough to recommend a meeting. The other is going to my editor at Trafalgar Square. I know they won't publish the book -- they've already passed on the project. They don't do children's books, anyway. But I thought I'd let her see what else I've been working on, in addition to Geoff's book and the editing project for He Who Will Not Call.

I have one week left on the Great Screenwriting Challenge. My friend Paul, of course, is already finished with his Magnum Opus. Which easily leads an embittered writer to grump about people who don't have enough to do. But it's all good. I'm happy he finished. I'll just be happier when I do. Twenty five pages to go. Give or take. It's like Finals week in college. I know I'm not prepared, but by the end of the week, this will all be over -- one way or another.

I also need to work up some questions for the co-author of my next book to get working on. He's starting a two-week elk hunt next week, and I want him to have some things to think about while he's gone.

And, of course, there's the few little things left to do with Geoff's book. I need to send the word changes we've agreed on in to Trafalgar Square, wrestle with one short section that isn't easily fixed by changing a single word, and come up with ideas for improving the foreword.

But first... coffee!

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Public Enemy #1: Believing Your Own Press

In recent days, I’ve had several experiences with current clients, former consultants, and one complete stranger that have led me to ruminate on the very real dangers of believing one’s own press, and the resultant ego trip that accompanies the practice.

In a nutshell, a good, healthy dose of humility never hurt anyone. I’m not talking about the “aw, shucks,” groundkicking that people do when someone gives them a compliment, and they don’t know how to accept it graciously. If you’ve done something well, don’t pretend you didn’t when someone mentions it. Say, “Thank you,” and move on.

No – I’m talking about the pervasive, persuasive (but ultimately flawed) belief that if you can do a thing or two well, then you can do all things well – and anyone who dares to suggest otherwise is Not Your Friend.

(You might think that this blog is about to take a political bent. It would be SO easy to go down that road. But no.)

I’ll begin with The Stranger. I was mucking about online at some ridiculous time early in the morning, trying to wind down before going to sleep, and stumbled across a blog that was well-written enough to keep me reading a bit.

In it, a guy half a century old goes on and on about how he’s lost the love of his life because they live in different states. He won’t move for her, she won’t move for him, so never the twain shall meet. So he’s stuck – stuck! – with this woman he’s “not in love with, but the sex is good.” He says he likes her body well enough, “but her face just doesn’t do it” for him. (Made me wonder what his face did for her…) He repeatedly whines about feeling that he’s settling for her. Then he proceeds to list all of her faults, namely, she used to smoke (which means she might again), and she doesn’t go to church. Ah, but HE’s a paragon of Christian excellence.

Believing his own press. Not terribly attractive stuff in one’s personal life. Downright dangerous in the professional world. And it’s rampant.

Take this current book edit, for instance. Not only does the person who wrote the manuscript believe that he is God’s Gift to his field, shamelessly name-dropping and bet-you-wish-you-were-me-ing throughout the text, but he refuses to acknowledge that a.) he cannot write well enough for his book to go to print un-edited and b.) he must be available to provide the missing information in order for the project to progress any further.

His inability to respond to phone calls or e-mails has already stretched the project out a month longer than necessary. And there is no end in sight. Both the publisher and I have been reduced to hounding him via e-mail and multiple phone messages daily. We’re getting excuses from people who know him (everything from attention deficit disorder to house renovations), but at the heart of the matter, he just doesn’t think we’re important enough for him to respond to. He believes his own press.

Another example – I’m currently working on a dictated project that I am to scrupulously transcribe. No editing of any kind is welcome, other than making sure that all words are spelled correctly. No grammar check. No vetting for agreement, tense, or usage. No juggling of text for clarity. Absolutely no political correctness.

It was unexpectedly difficult at first, because I was unconsciously correcting the text as I typed. Now I just grit my teeth as each error splats onto the printed page, and plow forward.

In today’s hyper-critical world, the more successful you become, the more you must find qualified, competent people that you trust who have talents you don’t have, and who can present you in the most positive light possible. Unfortunately, success often brings with it a sense of superiority. A “master of my own destiny” mindset, if you will.

No man is an island, remember. No one can “do it all.” That’s part of the fun of success – it allows you to expand your network of knowledgeable acquaintances whose talents and strengths can balance and compliment your own.

If I find myself thinking that I’m all that and a bag of chips, I know that I have any number of friends and relations who will happily set me straight. See to it that you do, too. Ultimately, you will realize that you are not the only one who wants to see you succeed. When you surround yourself with capable, talented people and let them do their jobs, your continued success will only elevate those who helped you get to the top… and who will help you stay there.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Rider’s Wednesday: Courting Cadence

Not long ago, I got an e-mail from a friend about improving cadence. She is a Western Pleasure rider working on graduating to three-gait classes from the walk / trot division. She asked specifically about cadence beads and bells. She wanted to know if I’d ever used them, and what I thought of them.

Before I go any further, let me acknowledge that the terminology here may be confusing. As far as I know, there is no universally accepted generic name for cadence beads. Sometimes they are called “cadence bells,” “rhythm beads,” or “rhythm bells.” They’re all the same thing.

Whatever it’s called, the device in question is essentially a strap of some sort that fits loosely around the horse’s neck. A clip or buckle at one end attaches to the horse’s mane or to the saddle. A series of bells adorns the neck strap.

The theory behind them is that both horse and rider can tell by the bells whether or not the horse’s gaits are regular and rhythmic. Proponents claim that using the bells teaches a horse gait consistency faster. In my opinion, many so-called “cadence bells” are more ornamental necklaces than training tools. However, I’m not at all advising against them. On the contrary, I think they can be quite useful.

I've never used the necklace thing for teaching cadence, but I've used sleigh bells for years when breaking young ones. I like several things about them -- they get the horse used to hearing something move every time he moves, so they help desensitize him. And they also jingle in time and help the horse learn rhythm. It's similar in concept to riding to music with a very definite beat (two or four for trotting, three for cantering). I think they're a good idea. Besides – I like how they sound!

When discussing cadence, or rhythm, or consistency of gait, however, the key is not using something that jingles in time to the horse’s step. The key is “practice.” A horse can’t canter well until he gets the opportunity to practice cantering. And that doesn’t mean letting him go halfway around the arena and then shutting him down.

When teaching a horse to canter under saddle, give him plenty of exposure to it. In the early stages of training, canter him a lot. Let him get a little bit tired. Let him discover that he can’t just stop and start when he wants to. Let him realize that it’s in his best interests to conserve his energy, rate his speed, and pay attention to what you’re telling him to do.

In a very few sessions, you’ll find that you’re on your way to a smooth, consistent gait with perfect cadence – with bells on. ☺