16 June 2006

a nasty little secret

One of the odd things about online communication — email, blogs, boards, podcasts, worm attacks, etc. — is the way "hip" cynicism seems the lingua franca of the online world. To be viewed as anything other than a card-carrying Rotarian stick in the mud dullard, one must be cool, which means that one must be disinterested, dispassionate, detached, and above all nihilistic in terms of faith in humanity.

"Everyone else is an idiot, all well-intentioned plans are shit, and a new sucker profile is created every 1.2 nanoseconds."

Fold that notion over upon itself to specifically sub-reference the somehow even more archly hip (read that: cynical) world of movies and screenwriting and frankly it's amazing that the cyberstreets of the online world are not choked with the dead of those felled by terminal cynicism. To listen to the chorus out there, nobody cares about the new guys, you have no hope of success, everyone is out to screw everyone else (and not in the fun or enjoyable way, either...), and at the end of the day nothing matters and what if it did.

But there is a deeper truth out there. One of the truly staggering things I continue to confront is so unsettling, so disturbing, that I have some trouble articulating it here now:

There are a lot of truly decent people out there in the world, and most of them are perfectly willing to give you aid and assistance if you but only ask in a sincere and polite way.

I'm planning an LA trip in a few weeks, the first such trip in which I am actively intentionally focusing upon meeting folks and networking and selling and schmoozing and generally working it. To listen to the standard chorus, you need to live out there for months or years and slowly work your way up the food chain, first palling around with algae and fungi, then moving up to protozoa and rotifers, then to agents, then on to multi-celled organisms.

(See? I lament over-abundant cynicism and what do I do? I bust on agents in a cheesy cynical gag. I'm so ashamed that it might take a good 45 minute nap to fully recover...)

The point is "you don't just show up in Hollywood as a total nobody and score meetings with people."

Except, I'm finding that I'm having no trouble connecting with folks I'm eager or interested to talk to. Producers, managers, fellow writers with whom I have only the most bare-bones minimal familiarity and connection... when I approach them and say "I'll be out there and would really like to meet and say hi, if possible," every single one of them answers with "Wow! That sounds cool! Here's my cell number. Let's meet on (such and such date) at (such and such time)!"

The nasty little secret that I mention in the title? Just this: nothing is as easy or as hard as it looks.

I've said it before: 90% of the people out there claiming to be aspiring screenwriters have no such aspirations in truth. What they do have is some needy desire to be hailed as a talented person, but many want this credit without ever actually doing the work of writing and without ever actually putting themselves at even the trivial risk of being turned down on an email solicitation to have coffee.

As with most things, it boils down to the simple choice described in SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION: "get busy living, or get busy dying."

That's goddamned right.
feeling Farragutian B

12 June 2006

the "one cool thing" approach

I will now do something very odd and possibly out of character for me: I will attempt to blog on an actual screenwriting topic in a non-whiny non-self-absorbed manner.

Your prayers are appreciated.

A few years ago, I had opportunity to sit around and converse casually with a big name screenwriter. We were laughing about various theories and philosophies about writing, and as best I can recall (hey-- beer was involved here, so memories are both fuzzy and few) he mentioned something about how he "just wants to make every scene as cool as possible."

That resonated with me, as I have long worked with the notion of "if I were reading this, what would make me smile and go wooowwww...'?"

The conversation led me to two things:

1) an all-over achy feeling the next morning (oy)
2) what I call "The One Cool Thing Theory."

Basically, when penning any story, be it prose or screenplay or self-involved essay or song lyrics (hey-- I have depth and shit...), I try to make sure that every major "sub-chunk" of the piece has at least one solid wad of interest for the reader to chew upon. In screenplay terms, that means that every scene in the script — and I mean every last one of them — has to have at least one definable moment where, when you or someone else is reading, the lips twist into a smile and the head shakes in an approving nod and the reader half-whispers to nobody in particular "cooool...."

'Cuz think about it: movies are expensive, both to produce and to consume. Last week I took two of my kids to see OVER THE HEDGE at a matinee and I still dropped more than fifty bucks for tickets, popcorn, and soda. If I'm going to drop that kind of coin on a flick, there had better damned sure be something there to make me smile and say "OK, that was worth my attention and money."

And if I am writing a screenplay which I hope some company is going to invest in to the tune of 50 or a 100 million bucks, I think it's even MORE true.

So when I finish a draft of a new project, one of the first things I do on the first pass read-through is to have a handful of colored pens at my disposal. Red pens are used for general markup, but I always like to have a second color — blue seems the most common for no reason I can fathom — to underline and mark in the margins with a star as The One Cool Thing I am most excited and proud of in every specific scene. And when I get through that first read-through, I then go back and check to make sure that every scene has at least one such blue star. For those scenes where no star is noted, I re-read the scene a second time to see if there is some obvious improvement to be made. If I can;t find it. that scene is marked for serious attention on the first major re-write.

Repeat the process on every new draft.

It's just that simple.

What's funny (to me, at least, and I accede that my sense of funny is perhaps a tad screwy) is that so few other people seem to know and use this or a similar trick. It seems so obvious, so simple, so clearly useful, that I just sorta assumed everyone was doing something like this. yet whenever I go into any detail, I invariably get people who go "wow-- that's a good idea."

Uh, thanks. On a related front, I think "breathing" is kinda useful, too.

So give this simple trick a try the next time you are doing a read-through of your current project. See if you can identify and label the One Cool Thing in every scene of your screenplay — that one moment the audience will most likely take home from that moment of screen time. If your script is overflowing with these blue star moments (lines, twists, reveals, visuals, metaphors, whatever), then chances are you're closer to a truly read-worthy script than not. If, on the other hand, you find that you have a significant number of scenes where there IS no one cool thing, then I'd strongly advice you go back and shovel in more fun.

Lesbians are a good easy place to start, as are giant squids, high-rise explosions, and flying wings.

But dammit put something in there. You want at least One Cool Thing, in every scene, in every story.

10 June 2006

the new post

This is the new post.

If you were expecting something more typographically imposing, or something shinier, or more rhombohedral, or less piquant, or a tad more oblately spheroidal, or a touch less jejeune, feel free to form a line and wait your turn to bite my left ass cheek.

And yes, read this as a signal that my worm has again re-turned yet again to "not so much thrilled about the idea of blogging."


04 June 2006

lasers and cave painting and pompous delusions oh my

Every once in a while I have the supreme luck to experience a moment which reminds me in cold hard slap to the face fashion what it is about writing that makes me shiver with joy.

Because let's be honest, kids— it's not the long lonely hours staring at a blinking cursor which refuses to advance even one goddamned character's worth forward. It's not the late bleary-eyed nights sitting up in bed with a still warm-from-the-laser-printer draft balanced on your knee, a red pen on your hand and a confused "what the the holy hell was this crap about?" look on your face as you edit a manuscript. It's not the beautiful Sunday mornings when the rest of the world is mowing a lawn or playing golf or hauling a short board to the coast or biking some hillside trail while you sit in a pair of gym shorts, sucking 5 hour old coffee and trying to rework a flawed outline into a form which might help you find a path of the face of the impossible second act cliff.

I speak instead of The Moment.

The Moment when you hand a sampling of pages to someone — someone not your wife or mother or second grade teacher — and they start to read... and you sit and watch, but try not to let them understand and feel just how closely you are watching, and you stare at their eyebrows, hoping to see the tiniest little furrow signaling that Something Just Happened, and you watch the corners of their mouths, praying that you see the nearly imperceptible twitch telling you they caught the joke, they noticed the curiously wry phrase, they felt a pang of actual By God emotion at exactly the word where you had worked to make it happen.

The Moment when your words — your dark little splotches of fused toner, or smeared ink, or oil on a canvas, or charcoal on a cave wall — bridged the gap separating your conscious mind from that of every other human being which has ever or shall ever walk this rock. That moment when you scream into the wilderness and hear, for maybe the first and please God not the last time, a voice faintly answering back.

"I hear you... I feel you... tell me more...."

The Moment when you, as a writer, finally connect with the person on the other side of the page.

If you're a writer, or have it in you to become a writer, you understand exactly what I am describing. Nobody becomes a writer in order to become rich. Well, no writer does this, though likely many non-writers try the trick, never understanding just how sadly ludicrous the effort seems to the real writers in the room. You become a writer for the same reason that a salmon swims upstream in breeding season. That a goose flies south when the air turns cool. That a plant turns toward the morning sun and a drunk away from it. You do it because that's what you do. You can't not do it without risking a psychic groin pull.

And it's a horrible excruciating soul-devouring way to live, save for those rare moments when you have a page or ten to share with another person, and you summon the testicular fortitude to do so, and that other person reads your stuff and feels something.

I had that happen again this week. Three or four times, actually. (What can I say? "it was a good week.) Specific details about who read what are not important, but at least three different times this past week I showed scribbles to people and my scribbles prompted them to say something.

"Wow" or "cool" or (my favorite) "can I read some more?"

Being writers, we of course have to undersell our reaction in such moments, as writers are Cool People, and Cool People do not react to such situations by jumping up and down on the sofa, screaming "YAHOOOOOOOOO! THEY FUCKIN' LIKE ME!"

[That's actors who pull such stunts — a sad low class of people none of us should long affiliate with.]

No, writers have to remain detached and vaguely bored by it all: "Thanks. It needs more work."

But at some moment later, in private when nobody stands around eager, ready, and willing to judge, we'll pump our fists and hop up and down and grin like stupid grinning things and sing "I Could Have Danced All Night" and do a dozen other equally childish things try to endlessly replay that second and a half when we had our soul hooked up in a direct link to someone else.

Such moments are lightning strikes — flickering instants of brilliant blinding power which leave an afterimage seared into memory. Non-writers sometimes can see the flash or feel the thunder and enjoy the show, but it falls to writers (and chapel roof painters) to understand on the poetic level that these lightning strikes are not just arcs of static electrical buildup between cloud and ground, or even mere instants of shared consciousness. They are, in truth, The Touch of the Divine, God reaching down to tap you on the shoulder when nobody else is looking, and asking with a wink and a sly smile "psst-- wanna know what it feels like to be Me?"

For these moments, I humbly give thanks.

Here endeth the lesson. Now rise, my brothers, and go create.
flying kites in a storm B

01 June 2006

i, weirdo

Every so often I am reminded that I am an Odd Little Duck.

And I don't mean in the quaintly affected way that some creative types labor long and hard to seem in a casual sort of way — I don't, for example, wear a beret or drink only some specific brand of bottled water or demand that my clothes be washed and fold In Just The Proper Manner. No, I mean in the "can be quantified and analyzed using standard accepted personality testing methods." Things like the Myers Briggs tests, Enneagram tests, etc.

It's hilarious and somehow comforting (for me, at least) to run these tests and see that I consistently score the exact same for decades at a stretch. Once Upon A Life Gone By, I was... well, "briefly in attendance at a prestigious military academy in Colorado." The whys and wherefores of that odd chapter of my life are not really important here, but that was the first time I started to become consciously aware of just How Different I was from my supposed peers.

Part of the [unnamed academy]'s intake process was a lengthy battery of tests on such things as ethics and personality. There is no "right" or "wrong" answer on these things, but I was struck by how different my scoresheets seemed compared to my classmates as we dropped them into the little "turn-in" bin. Twice I went so far as to borrow a sheet from a buddy, layer it over mine and then hold them to the light to compare my responses.

My sheet was almost totally opposite from his.

I repeated the process quickly with two other sheets. Same result: most sheets were somehow similar, excpet mine was the unmistakably odd one out.

One of the upperclassmen running these intake tests saw me comparing scoresheets and bellowed "NICHOLSON! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?"


"Impossible, Nicholson — Infinity cannot be scored on a standardized test. Now drop and give me fifty pushups."

(As I said, my time there was brief, and in hindsight it's not hard to understand why.)

The point of this is simple: I have a goofy personality. On the Enneagram tests graph, I clearly and consistently score as a Type 8: "The Challenger: Powerful, Dominating, Self-Confident, Decisive, Willful, and Confrontational."

So I got that goin' for me.

Meanwhile, over on the Jungian-theory inspired Myers Briggs tests I have consistently scored as a textbook ENTP type for more than twenty years now, which describes me as follows:

ENTPs are known for their quest of the novel and complex. They have faith in their ability to improvise and to overcome any challenges that they face. They are highly independent, and value adaptability and innovation. They may be several steps ahead of others in encouraging and valuing change. They hate uninspired routine and resist hierarchical and bureaucratic structures that are not functional. They need freedom for action.

Other handy euphemistic descriptions for the ENTP type include: Inventor, Visionary, Lawyer. Some of my fellow ENTPs include Ben Franklin, Bugs Bunny, Wile E. Coyote, and Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is cool 'cuz that seems like a fun group of guys to take a beer-fueled roadtrip with.

Of the sixteen personality types in the Myers-Briggs pantheon, the ENTP is among the more uncommon, seen in approximately 2% of the general population. That might be a good thing, actually, as one of the oft-repeated descriptions about the ENTP type is the way they see confusion and chaos not as problems so much as opportunities. Some folks like to spend their lives paddling across calm mirror-smooth lakes, but us ENTP types seem to prefer white water, metaphorically speaking, and often actually create a little pointless chaos just for fun.

Understandably, this can drive non-ENTPs a little batty, as us Improviser types pretty much live by the "well, let's see if THIS works..." mantra.

As writer, this manifests in screwy infuriating surprising ways, as well. Some of my peers seem to operate best in ordered calm organized environments and times. I, on the other hand, often seem bored until things get SO damned muddled and complicated and fucked-up and nigh-impossible that everyone else is heading for cover. I suppose when the going gets weird, the weird get going.

Today, for example, the deadline for one of my most-anticipated screenwriting contests slides by like a beer can floating past the bow of a chugging ship. I missed the deadline, due mainly to... well, a slew of other interesting things which have also been rapaciously consuming my attention. The Wife (who, God Bless her, has somehow survived my battle-loving psycho personality for fifteen years of marriage and twenty years of friendship) came in this morning and expected that I'd be bumming slightly, depressed that I'd somehow failed.

Instead, I was chipper — downright perky, in fact— a state which is entirely abnormal for me in the morning (I detest mornings — always have).

"I thought you'd missed the deadline for the screenplay entry."

"I did."

"And that's sad, right?"

"Yeah (giggle), I s'pose it is."

"But you're in a good mood?"

"Yeah. Now that the situation is impossible, I can finally make some progress. I find hopelessness somehow inspiring."

"You're a freak."

"I love you, too, dear."

So my deadline is passed. My home is overrun by kids (mine, mostly) all on summer vacation. I have an insane schedule of obligations in the next ten days, and my screenplay is a smoldering wreck, with a blown fuel pump in the middle of the second act and a nearly impossible confluence of final conflict forces which have to be braided into a cohesive logical cinematic and appealing unified cord.

No clue, no plan, no path in sight... let's rock.