I was in a funk. It was an ambitious project with an impossibly short deadline. But here’s what I learned writing my first feature screenplay. 1) Be naïve 2) Embrace Genre 3) Plan first, write second 4) Deadlines are your friend 5) Stop thinking. Anyway, I feel pretty good about it and come what may, I know I’ll be at it again soon. Read it here.
First, A little background
I am mostly a writer of fiction. I’ve published a few stories, but mostly I’ve known rejection. I have a pair of aborted novels under my belt. I’ve written a short play, a script for a documentary, and a short script of about 15 pages. So to be fair, I guess one could say I had some experience writing screenplays. But just like a few awkward dates in high school do not make you a great lover, I was no screenwriter.
At the time–November 2015–I was in a bit of a lull. I wasn’t really working. I had too many unfinished (read bad) projects and too many ideas and not enough discipline to see any of it through. And let me stress that point, the real source of my misery was my own laziness. So I decided to give myself a jolt. I submitted to The Baltimore Screenwriter’s Competition and I have never felt better. Win or lose, I am reborn. So here’s what I learned…
Lesson One: Be Naïve.
In a very narrow sense, being naïve is the only way to get something big done. There are A LOT of products out there. Books, shows, movies, bands, websites. There are a thousand good reasons not to write a screenplay, or really any big project. No one’s buying spec scripts. Agents are looking for sure things. No one reads anymore. No one watches independent film anymore. While it’s probably, unwise to completely ignore their caveats. If you listen to these people you will never write a thing. And let me tell you something else. Those people ARE writing.
Lesson Two: Embrace Genre
Why is it that Romance, Sci-fi, erotica, and crime stories consistently sell and have devoted readers? Because their audience enjoys that perfect mix of familiarity and strangeness. For so many years, especially among so called literary fiction writers, genre was a dirty word. It had associations with cheap, predictable stories. But here’s the deal. We have entered a new age where STORY rules the roost. Working within a genre gives a writer a set of rules that makes it easier to create a compelling story. My screenplay was going to be a romance/drama. So what were my rules? Well for one, my lovers had to meet by page 20. Whatever was going to bring my strangers to together had to happen by page 10. And the whole world had to fall apart by the end of Act II. It’s a hell of a lot of fun writing each scene with a clear destination.
Lesson Three: Plan first, Write second
I got this from Robert McKee’s Book, but really my second grade teacher taught me this. As a writer of two aborted novels, I have made myself a promise: Plan the write and write the plan. Maybe there’s some vividness lost. Maybe there is a small advantage in not-knowing what’s going to happen next. But the pain of revision, the annoyance of writing purposeless pages, and the time lost is unacceptable to me. It began with notecards a la McKee’s method. Then I typed an outline which ended up being twenty pages or so. When it was time to write, it was a pleasure. Yes, I said it. PLEASURE. I bet you never heard that one before. Here’s a pic:
Lesson Four: Deadlines are your friend
I’m a lazy bastard. I need action. The typical six month lag time for most literary magazines to respond to your work wasn’t helping either. Writing may be about “ass in the chair” but it gets easy to lose your purpose.That’s why I was attracted to the external deadline. January 20th at 5pm. What was especially intriguing was that I had heard about the competition rather late. It was already November. I was under the gun. And as any writer knows, time is a very potent antagonist. The name of the game is quick thinking. Maximum quality within the desired time frame. Now, I know that are some people who believe you can’t rush creativity, that a project is done when it’s done. But a non-negotiable deadline brings efficiency to the art. It objectifies it. And most importantly, the product becomes important, not the process.
Lesson Five: Stop Thinking (and end your problems)
This is a quote from the Tao Te Ching. I read that a lot when I wasn’t writing and used to think I was enlightened. Now I know I am not. My thinking about the writing all these years was really a sickness. What is the point? You feel motivated to tell a story? You want to entertain people? You like making things up that didn’t exist yesterday? well then, it’s decided. Now just work. Action! Labor! There is nothing more mysterious to it than that. Or as Frost says “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Or the Bahgavad-Gita “Concentrate on Action, not the fruit of action.” Was I a screenwriter. Hell no. Am I now?
Who the hell cares? But at least you can read my screenplay. I have taken a step away from it this month to get some distance before I begin the next revision. Any help would be welcome. Look on my dropbox sidebar to make comments.
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