26 August 2006

what's so hard about ideas?

I have friends (shaddup) who claim that the writing part of screenwriting is easy for them. What they claim is tough is the ideas. They claim that they can sit for days—weeks, months—and not be able to think of a single story ideas which inspires and ignites them.

I have the opposite problem. Every time I sit down to think of cool story ideas, I am overwhelmed by the number of cool sounding stories I wish I could see as movies. Like Billy Blaze in NIGHT SHIFT, I can't keep these ideas out—they just coming at me all the time ("idea: feed mayonnaise directly to the tuna fish!").

Or, as Headley Lamar tried to explain to brutish shit-kicking Taggart:
My mind is a raging torrent, flooded with rivulets of thought cascading into a waterfall of creative alternatives!

These damned ideas are flying at me like bugs at the teeth of a grinning cycle rider: too many, too quickly, too often for me to even think about it most times. When one of these ideas hits and sticks with me—when it lodges in my brain (or, to continue the forced metaphor, "teeth") such that I find myself still thinking about it over and over, constantly, for long stretches of time, with that idea expanding and developing and revealing itself like a glovebox roadmap unfolding on an open-window breeze—then I will usually add that idea (and the synopsis as it exists at that point) to my running list document of ideas.

This morning I added another damned idea to the current Idea List, bringing the count to TWENTY story/screenplay ideas I'd love to work on if ever I could just find the time.

[And, please: spare me your lisping snarky comments about "so why are you wasting time on a blog, Sir Thinkalot?" Urping up a post like this one here takes me about ten minutes of no special effort, and often helps me clear the pipes prior to a session of more serious writing. Writing a screenplay takes weeks of dedicated effort. You might as well compare taking a sip from a water fountain to eating Thanksgiving Dinner, as both involve "swallowing."]

Five of those ideas have already received some degree of my dedicated attention: one is an old idea that was once a completed original screenplay of mine and now exists as a sort of basketcase dismantled project, another has been written and performed decently in major contests, another is under current development and has attracted some degree of attention and support, and two others have intro/test scenes written to help me define and explore the tone of the eventual project.

(Curiously/annoyingly enough: two other ideas from that list have recently shown up as actual movie projects elsewhere, indicating to me that perhaps I have a fairly decent mind for recognizing commercially viable story ideas, so bite me, naysayers.)

My point there is that these are not empty pipe dreams I am talking about. These are not throwaway half-formed moments or scenes I am talking about. These are actual story worlds, where something really interesting is going on and interesting people are forced into interesting situations to overcome or prevent these big events. "Stories," in other words. Stories which I know would rate my interest to the point of plopping 9 bucks on a ticket counter to see on a screen.

And I'll be damned lucky to ever play with even half of these cool ideas.

So when I hear people—whom I absolutely trust and believe—complain that they just can't come up with a cool idea to pursue as a writing project, I am totally confused and bewildered.

That just doesn't happen 'round here.

20 August 2006

roll call: austin film festival 2006

So who's going to Austin this year for the big screenwriter's conference?

Friends of mine (shaddup) know how I feel about the AFF—for my money, there's not many more effective ways to do some basic networking and connection-making than with four hard-charging days in October at the Driskill. I already have the usual suspects—that odd gaggle of Austin (ir)regulars who pencil this event in on their calendars first thing every year—but this year I seem to notice a lot more of my online acquaintances announcing that they are finally going to make the trek for the first time.

That's wickedly cool, as a great many of the 2006 rookies are folks whom I already know and (to varying degrees... ahem) like. Some of these folks are committing to this event very much as a leap of faith, based upon the cheerleading and up-talking from folks like me (and others—AFF fans are not hard to find if you frequent any of the usual online screenwriting haunts). For some, it surely feels like it did for me my first year at the conference:

"Is this really worth the time and money?"

"What am I going to **do** there?"

"Am I going to wind up wandering around, alone and pathetic?"

To answer the above: "absolutely," "more than you would probably believe," and "not unless you really want to."

But I was lucky that first year: I wound up under the wing (and sometimes under the skin) of a few great folks who led me around and showed me what was available and who was who and said stuff like that "Yeah, that's Shane Black who claimed your spot on the sofa when you went to buy another beer. Wanna meet him?" and stuff like that. In the two years I've been to AFF, I've made and renewed a great many connections in Austin, including some, which, strange as it sounds, now rate among my favorite and most valued friendships.

(Again, shaddup)

I've also watched as some other people show up and do approximately nothing to distill any value from the opportunities presented. Folks who, for whatever reason, seem content to treat the conference almost like an airline flight, where they pay their fare and then just show up and expect everything to be handled for them. These are the folks who come to the conference, attend their daily panels, retreat to their hotel rooms in the afternoon and do... nothing. I find that both sad and confounding, as why in the world would you invest the time and money to make such a trip only to do nothing once you get there?

So I'm saying here, "if you're going to Austin this year, chime in now and start to get a feel for the folks you can and should be looking to meet once you are there.".

Maybe there's some friend of yours already going to Austin and you never realized it.

Maybe someone you've always enjoyed in online form—a chat room pal, perhaps—is headed to AFF and you might finally have a chance to make good on that beer you've long joked about buying.

Maybe there's someone heading to Austin who might be looking to split a hotel room, or a cab fare, or something—something that helps put real dollars back in your pocket today or tomorrow.

Yeah, yeah... there will be the usual impressive roster of name pros from the screenwriting and filmmaking front, but almost as useful from a career-building angle are the fellow aspiring pros who will be there—folks like me, folks like you—folks who are now just struggling nobodies but who might well emerge in a year or two as the very sorts of people you badly wish you knew today. Folks who could give you useful advice. Who might offer a helping hand when you finally make that first trip out to LA to meet and schmooze on foreign territory. Who might one day have a useful contact to toss your way, a friendly agent to send a query to, a cool major player acquaintance to take you skeet shooting with. Whatever. The point is, you never really know who will be a huge player in the near future, so making friends and connections now can only be A Good Thing.

So let's get a head count going to see who might be showing up in the Capitol of Texas in late October this year. I'm not going to organize any sort of group meeting—there are plenty of such events already being set up among those sorts who enjoy such events—but maybe there are some connections waiting to be made now, some mutually beneficial relations which might be found or forged.

Drop a note in the comments section if you are sure (or likely) to attend AFF 2006. We can help one another... so long as we don't just stand around like wallflowers, always waiting for someone else to ask us to dance. Cuz like the man said:

This ain't no party. This ain't no disco. This ain't no foolin' around.

Breaking through to the inside of that wall around Hollywood is serious damned business, my pretties. Let's get to work.

In Austin.

With a purpose in mind, and a beverage in hand.

19 August 2006

happy (screenwriting) new year

The rest of the world may happily look to January 1 as the start of a new year, but for many of the folks in my admittedly warped corner of Reality, the real lap counter for another year crawling past comes somewhere in mid/late August, as this is when the dink letters for the major screenwriting contests (Nicholl, Austin, Scriptapalooza, etc etc etc) seem to be arriving in the mail.

This is when the power players out in Hollywood seem to start trickling back in from... well, wherever they disappear to in late July-early August during that odd two or three week period of doldrums where it seems that NO call or email ever gets answered or returned.

And this is that time of the year when kids are returning to school, and all those soul-shackled morons like myself who have to split time between full-time parenting and full-time writing finally start again to have dependably useful chunks of time in which to chase screenwriting fame and glory. For an at-home parent, Summer is anything buy a vacation, as the kids are here needing/wanting such distracting items as "food" and "attention" and "emergency medical care."

Most tiresome.

So, while August might seem like the middle of the year based upon its position in the calendar, in truth for many of us it is the start of another season of hoping and dreaming. Yeah, yeah... for a few select lucky bastards there are still accounts open from last year—some few hundred folks, for example, are still in the running for the Nicholl Fellowship powerball lottery prize—but for most of us, it's now time to start gearing up for another run at the roses.

I'm feeling a tad run-down in some regards: this summer was especially exhausting due to a travel schedule which (for me) even in hindsight seems like the stuff of fiction: two trips to LA, a week in the Sierras, three out of town baseball tournaments, a week rafting on the Blanco River in central Texas... I'm still not sure how I'm going to manage all that, and it's already been managed!

Plus, I had mentally tasked myself with completing THREE new script projects this year. I'd managed two completed scripts last year—the war drama LILYA: QUEEN OF THE SKY and the action-adventure rom-com INTO THE AMAZON (co-written with PJ McIlvaine)— and felt that I'd started to get some momentum going. LILYA was well-received by every reader-pal (and I mean folks with a fair amount of objectivity and honesty) who read it and advanced in one major contest. AMAZON meanwhile had been a hoot to write and was getting a few requests and reads from various prodcos.

Then this spring... things sorta bogged down. LILYA needed a medium rewrite. AMAZON needed some serious work on one or two issues. And the problem with projects where you can see actual genuine possibility is that it then becomes doubly hard to just walk away and start something new, so I wound up spending a lot of time trying to get these two projects from last year polished up to the point where they might have some serious usefulness and attractiveness this year.

Meanwhile, there are the projects I've been trying to work on for this year's credit sheet (the rom-com and the spaghetti western projects oft referred to in this blog). Both still excite me, and both give me serious motivation to continue working, so those will now start to eat up most of my conscious working day. Hopefully (knock on wood) I'll be able to knock out the final initial draft of the rom-com in the next two weeks (or less) and then turn my attention to the western as I let the rom-com settle and mellow for a week before ripping through on a hurried edit and rewrite. Then get the rom-com to a set of a half dozen or so trusted readers, hammer down on the western, start collecting ideas for the inevitable Next Cool Thing, and then get the western polished and out to [someone who really wants to see it] so that I can then have a few weeks to settle and gear up for the screenwriter's conference at the Austin Film Festival in late October.

Come back from Austin, mope for a few days with the inevitable post-Austin blahs, and then kick ass to get something up and running in the two months still left in calendar 2006 so that I can hit 2007 running, ready to flog the holy hell out of at least four and hopefully five read-ready projects.

if I look at it all like this, it seems like a hell of a lot of work to do, and surely it is. But right now, what's really intimidating me is the next sentence... the next word... the next idea in the scene I'm trying to write.

Happy New Year, screenwriting pals. Now drop that stupid grin and get back to work. Time's a-wasting.

13 August 2006

the creative power of *not* writing

In talking to non-writers (that is, "folks who neither think of nor introduce themselves as 'writers'") I often hear things like "writing is hard."

Bullshit. At least, for me, in my odd world, that's bullshit.

'Cuz for me what's hard is not "writing," but "NOT writing."

Yet I have found that often NOT writing is the best thing I can do for my writing. What often works better is to hold that urge—to force it to cure and amplify and build like a feedback wave until there's no longer any damned chance of not writing.

Take the current rom-com project as an example. I'm on page 93 of the first draft. I have a producer waiting to read the damned thing as soon as I can send it over. I have an outline that I like well enough, and I see most all of the major scenes clearly enough in my head. But I'm not spending much time in the physical act of "writing"—I'm not tapping keys and adding words and letters to the pile.

Instead, I'm slow-circling the project, thinking about these scenes yet to be written. I'm listening to the dialog these characters want to say—need to say. I'm looking for all the subtext and theme and off-camera story that might be hinted at and referenced. Part of me wants to dive in and start clicking the keyboard, but another part of me says "relax... not yet...".

Wait 'til you can see the whites of their eyes....

The trick here is to hold the pose, to maintain steely-eyed focus until your body (or at least the mental image of your body) quakes and shudders from tension and near-exhaustion, and then release that pent-up focused creativity in a massive burst of output. When that burst comes, I'll blow through 15, 20 pages in one sitting, and often these pages are pretty damned good, requiring a lot less work and rewriting than if I'd instead sat here for weeks, noodling a few words here, adding a snippet there, appending a page as comfortable.

Because writing— the real nuts and bolts heavy lifting part of it—is not what you do with your fingers. That's "typing."

Writing—real writing—is done in your mind, and the longer I can put off the urge to scratch that itch by clicking on keys, the better the writing will be when I finally do scratch.

So if you see me not writing, relax: I'm probably busy writing.

12 August 2006

that [certain specific unnamed] premise

If you talk to aspiring screenwriters—and I understand that for most folks this rates right up there with "slapfighting with electric badgers" on the list of activities very few sensible people seem willing to sign up for—you will likely get around to a conversation about projects they are working on or hope to be working on soon or dream of one day possibly having any chance of working on, and when that conversation gets going, chances are there is a certain specific idea—a premise or mixed-genre scenario—that will show up. The first time you hear about this certain specific premise (and, no, I'm NOT going to tell you what it is...), you'll likely smile and think "now that would be kinda cool..." and you'll think nothing of it.

And then one day you'll find yourself talking to another aspiring screenwriter and you'll have that weird deja vú thing when that same premise gets trotted out, and you'll dismiss it as just a curious bit of coincidence.

And then you'll meet a third screenwriter who also lists this certain specific premise as a project they'd love to try, and that's when the Twilight Zone theme starts playing in the background, as you realize that something odd is going on here.

And here's the really creepy part: if you are a fellow tyro, someone dreaming of being a bigtime movie writing kind of playah, you'll look into your own closet of untapped ideas and confess that you, too, very likely have that same damned premise on your wish list.

Apparently, the idea of the [certain specific premise] movie (and fuck you NO I'm not going to describe it!) is kind of like that can of cream of mushroom soup you find in 98% of all American kitchen pantries: you almost never hear of or see anyone saying "you know, I sure could go for a big bowl of cream of mushroom soup right about now...," yet everyone seems to have pre-prepped for that urge anyway, just in case. This premise is similar in that you seldom (if ever) hear anyone say "you know what I wish I could see on a big screen? A really good [certain specific unnamed premise] movie!", yet almost every aspiring screenwriter I know either lists [this certain specific premise] on their upcoming project list, or has a finished draft of a [certain specific premise] movie in their drawer somewhere.

And here's the thing: to date, I think this certain specific premise has been seen in maybe 4 movies ever, so it's not like it's some hyper-clichéd "DIE HARD on a [insert]" sorts of ideas, yet the very notion of the [certain specific premise] premise is now apparently almost something like an in-joke among readers and studio folks. In the past month I've encountered FIVE of my erstwhile peers who claim to have such a project on their current or upcoming work docket, and at the same time I can recall at least THREE specific snarky comments in magazines wherein some exec sighs "I sure would be happy to never again have to look at another movie about [certain specific unnamed premise]."

And, yes, I have such a project, too.

Thing is: while I can (sorta) understand how and why this premise might be both appealing to writers and tiresome to studio reader-types, I still think my take on this [certain specific unnamed] premise is just different and goofy enough to warrant continued development and effort, and so I'll march on with the blunderous assumption that I am somehow special, that I have somehow found the one workable path to the summit of a mountain which thousands—tens of thousands— have started, few have surmounted, and almost no one cared about in any event.

'Cuz, dammit—somebody is one day gonna bring in THE kick-ass be-all end-all script which both defines and destroys the specific sub-genre forever, and then all those writers will say TOLD ya so!" while the studio weasels will roll their eyes and say "OK, here's the exception which proves the rule" and then we'll get to suffer through the inevitable spate of cheap awful clichéd variants on the [certain specific premise] movie, and again both sides will point and claim that sad situation as somehow supporting their original position.

In the meantime, an army of idjuts huddles over keyboards and dreams that they are each the one true heir who will finally pull the sword from this stone.

The entire situation has that curious blend of Quixotic heroism and pathetic futility that somehow sings to my soul.

10 August 2006

random and various upon a return to TX

So, it’s been a weird wild summer. This weekend will mark the first time in eight weeks that I will be at home for the weekend. In that crazy span of weeks I have been (chronologically):

• at a little league baseball tourney (Friendswood)
• networking in LA
• at another baseball tourney (Katy)
• tubing in the Hill Country
• at yet another baseball tourney (SW Houston)
• camping in the Sierras NE of Bakersfield CA
• hanging in LA with my oldest son

School started today for my three oldest kids (6th grade, 3rd grade, kindergarten), and then my youngest (the girl) starts pre-school in a little more than a week, at which point I will (ta dah!) again have glorious quiet days in which to try and write.

Which will be great, ‘cuz I suddenly feel like I’m two months behind where I am supposed to be on a few projects. That first LA trip was way cool for many reasons, but none cooler than the meeting I had with the producer/development exec for a well-known star who seemed to respond very favorably to a writing sample she’d requested as well as to the pitch and synopsis of a project I’ve been working on this year expressly for that star.

”Send that to me just as soon as you get it done -- I want to read that.”

That was a few weeks back and in the interim I’ve begged borrowed and stolen what time I could to mush forward to the point that I now have 92 pages of the initial draft saved in various locations,, and need only 25 or so more to get me to the completed first draft stage of the project (I always “write long” on the first pass, as I try out multiple passes at a gag to find which one works best on the page).

Hopefully (knock on wood grain) I’ll have something read ready in about 3 weeks, at which point I will make offerings to multiple gods (cover all ye bases, mateys) and then hurl the pile of pages off to someone who could (wow) Really make A Huge Difference.

Meanwhile I need to get medieval on the western project for a director pal of mine, and I have at least three other oddball ideas clamoring for attention like Horshack when he thinks he has the right answer.

While in LA again this past weekend, I touched base with various friend in-country there, and several of them reported very inspiring and motivating bits of potentially awesome news. No specifics to spread in public, but it’s almost as cool to see a friend hit it big as it surely will be (think positive) when I do.


So, now the trick is to stay frosty and on-point. To write write write and squeeze every damned bit of fun and emotion from every damned syllable of every word.

Coffee is for closers, baby.
back on the chain gang B