Monday, April 20, 2009

Seven Deadly Writer's Sins: #1

or: Need More Ned!

I admit with a touch of embarrassment that I went to see 17 Again this weekend.

I went with low expectations, and for the first 15 minutes, I felt that perhaps even they had been too high. (Admittedly, however, I find it difficult to argue with any premise that stipulates that if divorce is imminent, the way to save your marriage is to have your husband suddenly turn into Zac Ephron and still have the hots for you.)

Often, I actually enjoy movies with scripts as full of holes as this one -- they give me great comfort, and bolster my hopes. Though they make me seriously question why I bother working so hard on things like character development and continuity.

But then I realized that I was enjoying some parts of the film far more than others. And I wasn't alone. Every time Thomas Lennon came on the screen, the audience perked up and the energy level in the theatre rose. Less than 30 minutes into the movie, I commented to my friend Chari that I could watch an entire film of just Ned (Lennon's character).

You see, in my humble opinion, the writers of "17 Again" committed one of the seven deadly sins of writing: they created a secondary character and made him more interesting and more engaging than the protagonist.

By the end of the first act, I was far more interested in what Ned would do next than in what Zac (oops, "Mark." Or was it "Mike?") would do. Ned got the best lines, the best scenes, got to wear the most interesting clothes, and had the most complete inner life. He may have been created only as comic relief, but his character assumed a life of his own and grew far beyond the meager bounds of the movie that he lived in.

Why is that a sin? Isn't it a good thing to create a memorable character that lives and breathes? Of course. But if your supporting characters are more well-rounded than your protagonists, or your antagonists, you have committed the writer's sin of Complacency. You thought you had a Good Idea, and figured it would take no more than bare-bones cardboard characters to execute that idea.

For shame!

One well-rounded character -- no matter how small -- shows the audience that the writer had it in him the whole time. But only one such character also lets the audience know that the writer didn't feel like working that hard on every person he created.

In Other News

My major client has sent more work my way. I hope to be able to make great inroads on it by the end of the day. I'm also putting the final touches on a chapter of Ryan's book.

Which means, if I play my cards right, I will carve out some free time to work on my Own Private Project. I have a portion of the first paragraph finished, the entire story mapped out, and a fairly good handle on all the major characters. With any luck (if I do my job right), the characters will all be interesting enough, flawed enough, and compelling enough to merit their position as major players on the story's stage. Time will tell if I'm guilty of the same sin I accuse others writers of...

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Best Part of the Project...

The Great Biopic Screenwriting Project is finished! ::RAH! Yee-ha!::

Of course, all writers know that NO project is ever truly finished. There is always something we feel could be done to improve it. Be that as it may, it's done for now. It got its WGA and LC registration, has been converted into a .pdf, and my friend and co-writer Paul has sent it on to Those Who Matter -- including the real-life subject of the project. All that is left to do now is sit and wait for the notes to come in.

Some days, I think finishing a thing, and doing the Happy Dance at the finale is the best part of a project.

It's not like there's nothing else to do while I wait for the client's notes. My Major VIP Client has come through with an entire project's worth of illustrations that must be reviewed and captioned. A strict deadline looms in the near future, so I have earmarked part of this afternoon and most of Sunday to the task.

Truth be told, I'm quite looking forward to it. I haven't yet seen any of the illustrations, and the text that they are to illuminate is already carved in stone. In many instances, because it's so straightforward, captioning could be construed as the best part of a project.

I've been asked to present another Writer's Workshop -- something I am always happy to do.

I've been given free rein to talk about anything I want to (which goes a long way to making me smile uncontrollably). I'm thinking that in addition to a short workshop on more general topics for novice writers, I'd like to conduct a lengthier, more intensive workshop for those wanting to develop and complete a novel or screenplay already in progress.

I love speaking to others about their writing dreams and suggesting ways that they can move to make those dreams reality. Sometimes I consider that the best part of what I do for a living.

And then there is the ongoing development of Ryan Gingerich's book. Ryan is very clear about what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. He's engaging and loquacious. He has a voice that readily translates to the written word without losing its defining characteristics. And (so far) he approves of the way his book is coming along.

Often, converting someone's raw spoken material into polished prose is the best part of a project.

Ah, but all of those "bests" lose a bit of their luster when compared to the heady rush of being struck with a Great Idea. That's what happened to me last Friday. With little to no warning, a New Killer Idea hit me -- and I haven't been able to stop thinking of it since. I have 4 notebooks currently in various stages of the story development. I've shared the premise with only two other people -- and they are now clamoring for daily updates. It's good. It's exciting. It's challenging...

And it's all I want to do.

I've had to force myself to work on my clients' projects...

... to do regular household duties...

... to eat and to sleep, for crying out loud!

I am "with book" -- full of the promise and potential of this new project. OOooo, I love the obsession. I haven't experienced it for over a year, and am realizing how very much I MISSED it.

So, though there are many good things about the various phases of writing projects, if I had to cast my vote for the BEST PART, this would be it.

To every writer out there: here's to great beginnings!

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

In Search of Silence

Today is another day in the ongoing, line-by-line Great Biopic Screenplay Edit. Paul and I shower each other with encouragement:

"You write like a girl!"
"You dictated this -- remember?"
"Try again; this time with talent." we try to make the script fit for human consumption. I am, admittedly, too close to the project for true objectivity. However, if I do say so myself -- I believe we're crafting something that's quite good.

Paul and I are both believers in the "Oblique Conversation Principle." People rarely say exactly what they mean. It's second nature in real life. But it's not always easy to duplicate in a script.

Sometimes, the best way to approach the issue is to write out the scene using on-the-nose dialogue that articulates what the characters would say, if they said precisely what was on their minds -- then going back through it and changing every line to something less obvious. It's the writing equivalent of an artist outlining something in pencil first, finishing the drawing, and erasing the original lines.

Sometimes, however, the best thing you can do for a scene is to write out the dialogue; wrestling with it until it strengthens the subtext, adds nuance to your character, and impresses you with your own cleverness. Then... getting rid of it all.

Often, if you have done your job as a writer, the scene will play just as well without a single line spoken... or, at the very least, with minimal language.

This happened to us as we worked yesterday. We were polishing one of our favorite scenes. I liked certain aspects of it. Paul liked others. We each argued for our pet projects until... Paul suggested axing everything but the actions.

Et voila!

Suddenly, the scene got MUCH more interesting. It's not like all our hard work on crafting cool words went right out the window. Rather, when we got rid of the words, we both felt that the real essence of the scene shone through.

If you're wrestling with a scene -- be it in a screenplay or in a novel -- consider taking all the words out of it and see how it plays. Without the distraction of spoken words, the audience's attention is riveted on the characters' actions. And, of course, one of the first truisms of humanity is that actions speak louder than... you know.

Project Updates

The Major Project for the USHJA is at the "clean up the bits and pieces" stage. Later this afternoon, I'll go through the entire project on a part-by-part basis and make sure that all individual sections are ready for vetting by the legal department.

Speaking of vetting, the horse vet comes tomorrow for spring shots and some much-needed dental work on the two "free" horses that have come to call our place home. One, in particular, will need some extensive work. Her teeth are interfering with her ability to make the most of her food. She's literally getting as much to eat as Theo, and she's a small, light horse -- yet Theo is in fine (some would call him "fat") fettle, and she's... ribby. Ick.

We are in the midst of a Subterranian Extravaganza, as our contractor does daily battle with both the low basement and the high water table. Further news from the front as events develop.

And Ryan's book is poised to take precedence over all other projects. In fact, with any luck, I hope to have most of it at least in rough draft form before the end of the month.

With several projects clamoring for attention, it behooves me to finish today's post and get to work! So... off I go: in search of silence.

Friday, April 03, 2009

When Everyone's a Critic

or, Good Griefer!

We writers can be a terribly sensitive bunch, especially when it comes to our literary creations. Oh, sure -- we may say "I don't care what the critics say," but we don't mean it any more than your mother means it when she says "it's fine if you don't come home for Christmas."

Of course we'd like critical acclaim -- whether it's accepting the Pulitzer, the Nobel, the Tony, or the Oscar. Frankly, 5 stars, a "9" or a "10," or even a "thumbs up" from an established, reputable critic can go a long way toward vindicating the single-minded effort it takes to push through the rejection that often earmarks a writer's early days.

I was ecstatic, for instance, when American Equine Publications named Dr. Warson's book one of the Top 3 Books of the Year. And I always enjoy it when my publishers send me clippings with favorable reviews. I don't think it's vain to rejoice when voices in the industry praise your efforts.

(Likewise, if a respected reviewer offers less than glowing praise for a project, it may be worthwhile to at least consider the validity of the pan... before deciding that the reviewer is an idiot who would be better suited to taste-testing toxic waste.)

Whether or not we give credence to the opinions of professional reviewers, however, any writer worthy of the name will soon learn to beware the "Look, Ma! I'm a Critic" homegrown-variety reviewer that the internet has spawned.

Suzanne Male addressed the "griefer," this denizen of the digital world in her excellent post on Smink Works Books' blog last month.

You may think "but if my book is good enough everyone will like it," but the nature of the Internet has proved this a naive thought.

For people who have never put themselves out there - started a business, launched a new product, or made anything like a film, book or art exhibition, it's impossible to know what it's like to do such a thing. But it would be good if they did. For people wield their negative reviews, flippant comments and cutting remarks with abandon and little or no understanding or empathy.

The Internet has fostered this comment-without-responsibility situation. A derisive comment could come from a 12-year-old, an 'anonymous' competitor or someone who hasn't even read the book, or used the product, for all you know. And yet this 'customer feedback' can make or break a product.

I'm not writing this because I'm peeved at a bad review. Like many writers, I rarely read the online reviews of my work. But I've been online lately, reading reviews of movies and shows that I like, and the lack of quality reviewing (let alone basic accuracy) is staggering. I find myself wondering "Did we even see the same movie?"

Don't take my word for it. Check out what both Griefers and "Glowers" (raving fans) have to say about your favorite films or books. Perhaps that, more than anything else, will drive home the fact that not all reviewers are competent. Or qualified. Or even semi-literate.

I guess the bottom line is, to make it in this business, you've got to keep writing, work only on projects you fervently believe in (so you can champion them against their detractors), and let the words in your head drown out the Griefers in the world. These days, everyone's a Critic. But not everyone's a Creative.

Here's to the Creatives in my life! And a pox on those stunted souls who use their words to tear the work of others down without first producing something useful of their own!

Writing Updates

The Major Project for the USHJA is sooo near completion, I can almost bask in the glow of the light at the end of the tunnel. Another week or two, and it should be done. One hopes...

My biopic screenwriting project is consuming a significant portion of every day. Paul (the director, co-writer, and collaborator) and I are doing a line-by-line evaluation of the script. We fight for our favorite scenes and our favorite lines.

(Paul: You write like a girl!
Me: Because... I am! And, hopefully, half of our viewing audience will be, too.
Paul: I hate this scene.
Me: I love it. It stays.
Paul: Fine. For now. But it will be the first thing I cut in editing.
Me: Yeah, yeah, yeah... Once you film it, you'll forget all about this, think you wrote it, and think it's brilliant.
Paul: Ok, that's going on the slug list--)

Since we are 2500 miles away from each other, we keep a running "slug list" of things we need to smack the other person for... It's all a bit Keystone Cops, but it seems to work for us.

And I'm plugging away on Ryan's book. I hope to have the bulk of it written in the next few weeks, and then be able to edit it through the rest of April and into May.

Never a dull moment. Anything to give the critics something to chew on!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Mastering Motivation

One of the trickiest challenges a writer faces is creating interesting, three-dimensional characters that are compelling and believable, while still retaining the capacity to surprise the audience.

If a character is predictable, he or she is, by default, boring. However, even if a character’s choices stun us, we should still be able to accept the motivation for those decisions and accept them as “something he would do.”

Mastering motivation becomes slightly easier if we take a page from reality and throw logic out the window. Once we insist that our characters have a logical basis for their actions, we have taken a step down the slippery slope that leads to clich├ęd, uninspired prose.

In real life, humans have an infinite capacity for illogical behavior. Often, our actions make sense only to us -- leaving those who know us, love us, and have a vested interest in our continued health, wealth, and well-being scratching their heads in wonder over our perceived stupidity. If we writers can apply this to our character development, we will have tapped into something deeply “human.” Besides, what can be infuriating in the real world can become a tool of vast entertainment potential in the world we create.

Consider, for instance, Indiana Jones' fear of snakes. Or Louise's refusal to set foot in Texas, in "Thelma and Louise." How about Hercule Poirot's fastidiousness? Or Sherlock Holmes' superiority complex balanced with his addiction issues? Illogical? Perhaps. But the lack of rational thought doesn't negate the powerful forces that motivate the characters and make them memorable.

If you find that your characters are as flat as the screen (or the paper) they're written on, consider taking a side road away from Logic. Explore the myriad possibilities of Motivation instead.

Maybe a character idolizes her marriage, but not her husband... Maybe one can't bear to be told "no..." Perhaps a character equates advice with control... Or perhaps a son is terrified of following in his father's footsteps...

Feel free to borrow heavily from real life. Choose an irrational behavior that perplexes you, saddle a character with it, and see where it takes him. You might discover that it opens up a whole new world of possibilities, gives a new dimension to that character's interactions with others, and makes that character come alive.

Enjoy discovering where Motivation leads!