26 November 2006

on writing: baseball again as the mother of all metaphors

If (as it seems almost everyone is) you’re writing a screenplay (or at least claiming to be doing such), then likely you’ve already aligned yourself with one of two different camps in the screenwriting world: those who look to experts and gurus and coaches for advice and guidance, and those who look at such experts and gurus and coaches and shout “Charlatans! Fakers! Quacks!”

If forced at bayonet point to declare my affiliation one way or the other, I’d likely fall more into the latter camp than the former, but not because I think the experts are intentionally trying to scam or delude their followers. Well, some are, likely, but I’ll not waste time debating or describing who rates such labels versus who rates merely a “means well but knows nothing” tag. I believe that the majority of the so-called experts actually believe that they are providing valuable information and enlightenment, but as with many issues it seems prudent to remember that Belief and Reality are not necessarily contiguous much less congruent.

I was glancing at the blog site of one supposed screenwriting guru, one which many of my friends seem to like and respect. He might be a wonderful human being—I honestly don’t know—but I do know that I find his advice and theories consistently uninspired, uninteresting, and (worst of all) not at all useful for personal application. He writes well, with an undeniable elegance and fluency and passion for his specific area of concern, but ultimately, for me... there is no ‘there’ there.

And suddenly I remembered an exchange from baseball coaching earlier this year. In my real world life I’ve been a youth baseball coach for many many years: Little League baseball, teeball, girls softball. Usually I wind up assigned to be the hitting coach, as (for whatever reason) over the years I’ve accumulated some ideas and techniques on effective ways to help kids find and improve that swing.

(Yes, I'm a coach, and yes I appreciate the irony of referring to my own coaching expertise in a blog post largely dedicated to the proposition that coaches are of little usefulness in many situations. Don't interrupt me, kid.)

I was working with this one batter—a nine year old with good size, great strength, loads of “want to”—who just couldn’t seem to get his swing working. His form was so messed up that he was actually working muscles against themselves to get the bat moving, with the result being a very messed up swing which seldom made contact and almost never generated power.

If you are not a baseball person, understand that this is “not good.” The name of the game in hitting is “bat on ball—hard.”

As I was watching the kid and talking to him and trying to adjust a few odd quirks, his dad was watching close by and also trying to help. The dad kept stepping in to give advice and adjust things—often at cross purposes with what I was trying to do—and the kid was getting confused and frustrated. At some point the kid twisted himself into a truly odd-looking stance, but as soon as the ball came in, he suddenly uncoiled and PING the ball exploded to the outfield on a line. A solid hit. I just lifted my eyebrows and thought “huh!”

But the dad was very upset. He jumped in and immediately started getting the kid out of that odd stance, saying “I don’t wanna see that again! You’ll never see a professional hitter do that!”

”Well...” I interrupted. “Actually, you might. Especially if you look back to Carl Yaztremski’s hitting. His stance was a mess for more than two decades. Now he's in the Hall of Fame.”

The dad looked at me like I had a badger on my head.

“All this stuff about ‘what the pros do’ is just hopeful guidance. Stuff we throw out there in the hope that it proves useful or beneficial. But ultimately every hitter has to find their own swing.”

The dad was upset by such sacrilege and blasphemy. “That’s ridiculous. You can’t go up there [with such and such in your swing] and expect to hit!”

I told the boy to step out of the batter’s box, and asked the dad to go feed some balls into the pitching machine. I grabbed a bat, dug in to face the machine, and adapted an even more affected exaggerated version of the boy’s “wrong” stance.

“OK. Gimme some.”

I put three of the next five balls over the fence, the other two both skipping to the fence on a single skidding bounce.

I smiled to the dad. “I dunno... doesn’t seem an impossible proposition to hit that way. Feels kinda weird to me, but it seems workable from a mechanical point of view.”

I winked at the boy, and he smiled in a way that was clearly not meant to be noticed by his dad.

The dad walks in and just stares at me. I just smile, and then drop to a knee to talk to the boy some more.

“Look—there are hundreds of different variations you can try in your stance, with tens of thousands of combinations. Some people stand upright, some crouch low, some are tight with the feet, some are spread legged. Some have a closed stance, some are open in the extreme, some folks have a dull boring nothing special looking stance. Some hold the bat high, some hold it low, some start hands high, others have their fists low. But here’s the thing: nothing matters unless you can put the bat on the ball with force. If you can find a stance that let’s you do that every time you dig in for an at bat, then that’s a good stance. Bat on ball. Everything else is gravy.”

And right now, today, sitting at my cluttered desk as I contemplate more changes in the rewrite to my cursed damned Flying Dutchman of a romantic comedy script, that baseball metaphor seems one that might be useful for writers: there are all sorts of experts and well-meaning coaches out there who will try to convince you that their way—their philosophy of hitting, their basket of techniques and tricks, their trademarked System™ taught in seminars and via online CD’s and books—is the One True Path.

Don’t believe it.

When it comes down to it, it’s about a bat, and it’s about a ball, and it’s about bringing the two into contact in an explosive moment of ballistic perfection.

At the end of the day, nobody gives a damn about your process. Nobody in the audience gives a hoot in hell how you managed to address “theme.” No reader hunkered on a sofa or at a desk gives a flying fig about what techniques (if any) you used to ensure that your major act breaks fell at the right moment in your work.

What they will care about is “did you make solid contact? Did you put the bat on the ball and put it in play hard?”

As a writer, that is your job—that is your fuckin raison d’ĂȘtre.

Put the bat on the ball, by any means necessary.

Swing hard. Run fast. Pray often. Have fun.

Everything else is gravy.

24 November 2006

and today, reason to give thanks

Final score:

07 longhorns

Beat the hell outta t.u.
maroon and white B

22 November 2006

various and sundry

Just a handful of random thoughts, comments, and observations:

1) GOOD MOVIES ROCK: Last night I went and saw APOCALYPSE NOW at a the local Alamo Drafthouse, a cool semi-artsy theater chain which boasts first run movies, classic titles in weekly revival showcase format, plus something like 40 different premium beers on tap.

"It's a good thing."

Four bucks to see Coppola making that kind of movie which today seems nearly impossible to conceive: a huge sprawling intensely psychological personal mess of a tale, set against a huge dramatic backdrop and featuring a cast of ridiculously talented serious actors all swinging for the fences in every damned scene.

Weird, dark, psycho, demented, brutal, sometimes hilarious (and often for disturbing reasons...), with nearly every single frame of film a jaw dropping composition. All I could keep thinking to myself was "this movie might was well have come from another planet—they just don;t make movies like this any more."

Which, in a sense, was both depressing and inspiring at the same time. We seem to be in a pahse of the movie business where the first, final, and only consideration seems to be the almighty dollar. Now, I'm not some whack job commie fascist "power to the people" treehugger who thinks that we should all live in some kindergarten fantasy land where everyone does whatever they like without any concern for money and commerce, but it does seem sad that so few movies being made today seem to have any of the enduring "artfulness" of movies like Apocalypse Now. Love it or hate it, it seems pretty clear that you have to at least grant that it is one hellacious artistic statement, and not like anything else you've seen on that subject.

Of course, all it took was the bulk of Coppola's health and sanity, as well as most all of the financial and commercial clout that he'd managed to accumulate with GODFATHER and THE CONVERSATION. He's done some interesting work since APOCALYPSE, but it seems fair to say that he never again came close to the insanely epic grandeur of that movie.

If you have a chance to see it in a big dark room, with a big loud sound system, grab that chance and then be sure to give at least a bit of notice to the techincal artistry of the movie-- the sound, the colors, the framing, the editing, the music. When movies work, they truly are something terrifyingly magical.

2) THE AUSTIN DIARIES: I've not yet forgotten or abandoned the telling of the twisted tale of this year's Austin Film Festival. I've just been... distracted. Busy. Lazy. Whatever. There are some fun details waiting to be shared—beans waiting to be spillt—and it is my honest intent to share and spill as best I can, but for now I remain somewhere else, in another mood, and not of a mind to think back to this year's week in Oz, as memory leads to melancholy which leads to anger which leads to... nothing productive.

3) THE ROM COM: now titled TWELVE DAYS, the long-festering project was hurled at a handful of readers and by God they hurled right back. The nots they offered were not totally hostile, but they were pretty consistent in saying "this ain't ready, dude." Shrug. I'm not reworking the piece, and finding places where improvement and change was much needed before but where I (for whatever reason) chose to ignore or overlook problems. Likely I was both tired of not having any sort of "completed" draft to hold, as well as overly eager to get the project to some point where I might dream of flinging it over fences to folks who likely aren;t going to care overly anyway. Bottom line: the piece has some good points, so not as good points, and now is back into the workshop to be hammered and beaten upon until it comes out with more of that aforementioned "goodth."

4) THANKSGIVING: that odd American turkey holiday bears down upon us now, and with it begins The Holiday Season. Strange (or perhaps not strange) as it might be to consider, I'm not a huge fan of the holidays, as they seem to create more tension and anxiety in my life than they do good feelings and happiness. Don;t get me wrong: I love watching my kids enjoy Christmas, and I love seeing old friends who pass through on holiday travels, but by and large I've never really enjoyed all of the extended familial bullshit that seems to be part and parcel of the holidays. Odd demands, unreasonable expectations, selfishness run amok, guilt trips disguised as holiday cards and calls... there's a part of me which very much looks forward to emerging through teh other side to New years, when the next season of loonytunedness is as far away on teh calendar as it's every going to get. "Gird them loins, my pretties—it's gonna get rough for a spell now."

5) 2007: despite everything else, I continue to have an annoying sense of optimism for 2007, as I like (need!) to believe that this will be the year When Things Finally Start To Happen. I have a few projects I'm very proud of, some solid contacts and acquaintances in the biz to whom I can hopefully turn for guidance and assistance, plus (most importantly) I have the arrogant understanding that I'm more than good enough to make a go of it in the screenwriting biz ... if I can just maintain momentum. Push on, refuse to quit, and act like you're already part of the team. At some point either you break through into clean air where all is golden and wonderful, or you throw in the towel and say "fuck it—I'm done."

And I've always been too dumb to recognize the right moment to quit, so I might as well plod on like I have a notion to succeed.

Wherever you are, enjoy your turkey.

19 November 2006

2 steps forward -- 1.9 steps back

In the previous post I was all happy about finishing a critical draft of the romcom TWELVE DAYS. I said things like "[the script]... is, for lack of a better word, finished."

Now, I can see how one might read that and take it to mean that I thought the script was totally ready to be shopped, but believe me when I say this: that is never what I meant.

First off, I'm not sure that any script is ever truly "done.' Without engaging in some navel-gazing debate over the nature of the word "finished," I just mean that I don;t care how good a script ever is, I' not one who believes any human being will ever achieve perfection in a textual document of 100 pages. Yes, you can absolutely get a script (or novel or emergency response plan or owner's manual to an '87 Corolla or whatever) tightened to the point where it is more than good enough to do its job, but to ever think that you will get it to that point where you can read and re-read 100 times and say "there is not one word, not one piece of punctuation, not one paragraph break that could possibly be changed or improved!" is just plain silly.

Second, I meant that TWELVE DAYS, a project which has been bugging me for more than a year now, was finally "finished" to the point that there was now an actual script which could be read. Perfect? Absolutely not (and more on that in a minute), but it was now in a form that contained the story and characters and emotions and beats that I wanted to describe.

And so it went out to readers, with the instruction to "rip me a new one. Tear it apart, show no pity or compassion, and tell me everything that needs work."

To their credit, my readers did just that. My ass still bleeds from some of the comments the script drew back.

"I didn't care for the script..."

"... leads are not likeable..."

"... not believable..."

"... I didn't laugh once..."

"... doesn’t work for me..."

"... Real people do not talk like this..."


"...never really gets started..."

Now, was I happy to get these notes? On the whole, no -- clearly I would have preferred unrelenting praise and gushing -- but after about an hour of sulking around the house, I went back and re-read each set of notes and thought about what was really being said, and why, and in specific regards to what. In most every case, I was able to take something useful and instructive from the negative comments and see where something could be, should be, and will be improved.

Were the readers all right? Well, no. In some cases they were unified in their comments, while in most cases there was a split decision (some lines flagged by one reader as totally worthless were flagged by others as their favorites -- such is the nature of subjectivity). In some cases I can accept some or most of the comments from someone and then totally disregard other specific comments as just plain wrong.

So, when I said before "the script is done," I was sighing in relief that the script in ANY form was done.

Now it's time to roll up sleeves, grab a knife, and go back into the pit and finish the job, or at the very least get it closer to being done. What's left to get it truly market-ready? A few days? A week? A month? Who knows. Who cares.

It will be done, and as quickly as I can do it.

Thanks, honestly and sincerely, to my readers for the sadistic honesty -- I have nothing but thanks and love for the beatdown you gave the script, and the project will improve as a result. However, there's every likelihood that the eventual version of the piece I finally decide to hurl into the void as "ready enough" will (or would) still leave you less than thrilled, but that's the fun part of the game: these are my stories, and I trust my story sense more than that of others. I'd hope others feel the same about their own stories -- if you're not in this game to tell your story, then why bother playing?

Sissy Fuss B

13 November 2006

ok-- so now what?

The cool part about finishing any project is that you can start on some exciting new idea.

The sucky part of it is that you need to figure out what that new exciting idea is supposed to BE.

The long-fermenting RomCom (now "officially" titled TWELVE DAYS, though I reserve absolute right to change that for no reason at all...) is, for lack of a better word, finished. Three major rewrites (with at least five minor variations) finally yields 113 pages and change, which si only 3 pages over my intended target of 110, so I'll take that in a heartbeat, especially considering how much I like a great deal of this piece.

Is it perfect? Hell no, but then, no piece of writing ever is. The point of the game (especially w/r/t screenwriting) is to wind up with a product which is good enough -- something so good that whatever flaws and shortcomings it might have are totally obscured and overshadowed by all the "goodth" in it.

Is TWELVE DAYS that good? To be honest, I have no idea, but I do know that I like it a lot. There are moments which I've read 40 times now and which still stir some reaction in me: a chuckle here, a pang of melancholy there, a moment of moistness at this beat, a bit teary smile at that beat.

"Strong men also cry, Mr. Lebowski. Strong men also cry."

So now it will likely get slipped to a few trusted readers/friends who will hopefully not come back with "DUDE-- you CANNOT be fuckin serious! This thing is whale poo!" but who will instead have some minor and addressable comments which clearly then lead me to more of that aforementioned goodth.

Because goodth is good.

After that, I'll need to wrap the damned script round some rocks and hurl copies through the windows of as many potentially useful contacts as I can find: producers, managers, agents, pool boys... One can never predict where and when the lightning will strike, so the trick is to be as "out there" as can be affordably and sensibly managed.

And meanwhile, I need to find the Next Big Thing to occupy my thoughts and creative efforts as I sit here and listen to the phone not ring and watch that mailbox not be filled with welcome news. Period action drama? Mixed genre piece for smaller budget production? Shaggy dog R-rated comedy? Hell, for all the good it's doingme, maybe I ought try my hand at haiku, as at least that would save time and trees.

Blah blah blah... talk amongst yourselves.

07 November 2006

update: current projects

The romcom is skidding towards something like completion. The first draft (NOT "the vomit draft," as I hate that term) was pretty good, but with a glaring structural issue that needed attention (thanks to Julie O for helping-- she'll moan and wail if she doesn't get credit for The Big Salad). Raid turnaround to v2 then improved a bit and revealed a really really dumb gaffe in the third act structure. The new v3 is leaner (now down to 112 pages from the initial 119), has the major structural booboos addressed,a nd is in the process of a pair of quick and hostile passes 9one for dialog, one for action) and then one more pass to kill as many more widows and orphans as I can, and then off to a few friends for a quick peek, and then... off to producers.


LILYA meanwhile seems to be turning into a writing sample more than anything else. Folks who read it seem unified in their opinion: "Great, but expensive. What else ya got?"

Lack of vision, says I.

Two or three other ideas are starting to make noise in the corral, like they badly want attention and are about to start kicking fenceboards loose unless they get some.

As for the rest of teh Austin blogs... "patience, children. Patience."

IRL stuff, football winds down this week, Cub Scouts are back to just a normal level of insanity, Boy Scouts seem to be calming a bit, fall Little League season is in the books meaning there are a few weeks of down time before we start prepping and planning seriously for Spring '07... yikes.

Stay tuned-- November might be a wild ride before it's all said and done.