Because I am incredibly nerdy, I maintain a spreadsheet list of the projects I want to write where I keep track of their current stage of development. I also have a separate tab on the spreadsheet where I note everything that I am actually mid-draft on and on which I have recently-worked. (The novel I started on my own like eight years ago and haven’t worked on in four years doesn’t count.) On the “in progress” tab, I have the projected length also marked and the ratio of the two automatically generates a neat little bar graph where I can see how far along I am with all of it.
For the first time since I made that bar graph, it has only four bars on it. One is a 10-minute play that I have half-completed. The other is a full-length play that is about 25% drafted. The other two are screenplays – this very personal sci-fi thing that I started 11 freaking years ago and seems to come out one agonizing page at a time. It’s now 72 pages and I might even finish it before I die because it really shouldn’t be over 95. And the other is another personal piece that has reached the point where I have to reconceptualize it from being a feature screenplay to something else because it really is The Script That Will Never End. I currently have 139 pages of that and am still nowhere near done.
I have been pressing hard on the sci-fi piece – my best friend/sometimes writing partner Adam really wants to see it and I must admit I am fed up with it not being done. I am also trying to make up for a couple of years where I feel like my screenwriting pace slipped to unacceptable levels. Of these four bars; I think that’s likeliest to rise up to victorious heights and then disappear like a Tetris row next.
Like I said, it’s really rare of me to have so few things mid-draft. Sure, there’s a lot of stuff brainstorming…but I don’t know what it would mean for me to have nearly all of the mid-process stuff done. To not have something to just fire up the computer and hang words on. I mean, from a practical standpoint it would mean I have no choice but to muscle some long-simmering stuff into position to be written. Whatever this restless energy is that has produced so much work these last 4-5 months is still inside me, and needs projects to work on. I’ve never had to come up with material for it on-demand in this way.
Adam and I are crunching on a new collaborative piece for which he has technically already written a few pages; but I know we’re going to re-write them and I’m not sure how long this thing should be, yet. So it’s not yet on the graph, though it will be soon. I also have a new short film idea that has triggered some good ideas over the last few days. That one could start producing pages surprisingly soon.
So maybe the bars will multiply again and I won’t have to face this unknown phase. Or maybe I should take this as a sign to really finish these pieces and see what happens then.
As usual, I have no idea what the hell I’m going to do tomorrow. Except write, Jimmy. These days, it’s a good bet I’ll be doing that.
Basically, I get an idea. Usually, the idea comes in the form of a question: “What if….?” I ask myself the question. I ask a few close friends the question. I see if the question provokes any interesting reactions in them, or in myself. I’m testing whether there’s an emotional nerve exposed and tickled by the question. Then I start wondering what might happen in the process of seeing the question dramatically answered; what the journey to the answer might feel like. This stage is absolutely crucial for whether the idea lives and grows into a story or falls apart like old Jell-o.
I add details, I reject many. I come up with stupid ideas. Astonishingly good ideas seem to come out of nowhere. I can’t glimpse the thing directly; it’s too ephemeral – but by testing one thing at a time to see whether or not it belongs in the thing, I start to understand it indirectly. Usually, there’s at least one night where I’m torn between going to sleep and jumping out of bed to get to the keyboard and write some of this stuff down.
I can’t always tell when, but at some point, I recognize it. Maybe it doesn’t have a title, but I’ve named it in my mind – because I have a sense of what it’s about, what it feels like, what I want it to look like.
And then – there’s a new thing on the list of Stuff Nick Has to Write.
Nicholas Thurkettle is pleased to announce that, on May 1st, 2013, at 1:48pm, he became the proud father of a healthy baby novel – 422 manuscript pages long and weighing in at 92,427 words.
He will allow the novel to enjoy life for a few weeks, then come back and start hacking fat off of it and berating it for not being better.
I’m drafting the last chapter of the novel now. Actually, there’s an epilogue after, but I finished that awhile back. Next Wednesday is my due date; and I am still confident that I’ll make it.
I’m writing in a weirdly-unconscious place now. I guess it’s natural that, having never-written in precisely this mode before, I would discover new responses within myself. Never in my life have I sat down so consistently for so many consecutive weeks, with such singular focus on one project. And I have never written anything this big, full stop. 2013 is already in the running for the most productive year of my life in terms of writing output, and it’s still April. That’s downright alarming.
But these days, when I open up the latest chapter, this astonishing hostility kicks in. All I can think is: “You again?!” I don’t hate the book but I feel oppressed by the familiar unfinishedness of it. It’s not the same gray rut you might feel from clocking in at a job you don’t like; maybe it’s the impatience of such a long and laborious incubation. I wake up each morning to find that it’s still just a Word doc, with a blinking cursor taunting me from the tail of an incomplete sentence, and I am enraged that it hasn’t turned itself into anything else in the night.
There’s little brainstorming left to do. I am catching up to and transcribing the inevitable narrative output of an equation I already wrote. A warped argument in my brain is trying to even deny to me the satisfaction that I’m creating anything at all in these sessions, other than hopefully-smooth sentences.
And so each day I am convinced that I can’t do it. I won’t do it. Today will be that Mulligan day I built into the schedule, when the great choking gunk we call The Block will win and I will wave the white flag and I fart the day away with a Frappuccino and video games.
And I go over what I wrote yesterday. I don’t even remember half of it; because I was writing unconsciously that day, too. I make some snips and corrections, I bring myself back to that blinking cursor, and then, somehow…I just start typing. Because whatever thought is on the page isn’t finished.
I grump my way through a sentence at a time, building a moment, orchestrating an epiphany or a reveal, trying to come up with a single damned metaphor that doesn’t barf with pretension or go limp from obscurity. Using adjectives. Hating myself for using adjectives. Reminding myself that F. Scott Fitzgerald used adjectives and survived.
Sooner or later I reach the end of a sequence; the trance snaps, I look at the word count down in the corner…and somehow I’ve written my quota for the session.
Then I think to myself: “Well, sure, you got lucky with the morning session; but this afternoon you’ll be screwed…”
And I never am.
Today I finished the first draft of a new one-act play. It’s called The Rothko and it’s about a man who kicks a hole in a $30 million painting and can’t explain why he did it. This upsets people; and I have to be ready to deal with reactions from people because I am not giving them any solid explanation as to why he does it. There’s no traumatic painting-related experience in his childhood, he never met Rothko; there’s nothing simple or logical to it. He looked at it, he was suddenly compellted to do it, and he did it.
Further; I can’t explain why it is that, as soon as this painting-kicking idea struck, I decided that it should be a Rothko that the man kicks.
Ask yourself – honestly, now – could you see kicking this?
It’s actually a greater challenge to me to not wrap it up easily – it takes a lot of care to create interest and entertainment while teetering on the edge of ambiguity; and yet that’s what I feel duty-bound to do, because to me, the communication between art and its viewer is incredibly-unpredictable, personal, and powerful, and I couldn’t reduce that.
Does that mean I want to kick a painting? I’ve never felt that urge – although I confess I’ve felt myself wrestling with other strange, destructive urges in my life. The psychological definition of vertigo is the fear of falling set in tense conflict with an inexplicable desire to jump. But why would any person jump? Well – who hasn’t wanted to just say Fuck you, gravity, I’m doing this on my terms! I think we have a million varieties of vertigo, and the way that sensation manifests itself creates some unforgettable behavior; as well as some incredible art.
My favorite thing on the Internet today is this clip from a little-seen but-reportedly-awful early-80′s Australian musical superhero spoof about an alcoholic Superman-knockoff called The Return of Captain Invincible. Alan Arkin plays Cpt. Invincible, lured away from the bottle and out of retirement, and Sir Christopher Lee plays his sadistic nemesis, Mr. Midnight, who wants to use his Hypnoray to kill all non-white people.
The songs are by Richard O’Brien – the creator of The Rocky Horror Show and its film adaptation. And in this song, Christopher Lee reduces Cpt. Invincible to a fetal position with a pun-heavy rockgasm about how much he enjoys cocktails. It’s somehow weirder than I’ve described it:
Christopher Lee – Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Bond Villain, Tolkein Wizard, Sith Lord, Metal Band Frontman, real-life Nazi-hunting Special Forces Badass…also does showtunes
I’ve read stories about Richard O’Brien showing up at Rocky Horror tributes to sing (he performed the title theme and the role of butler Riff Raff in the film) and being too drunk to remember the lyrics. And when I look at something like this, I believe that something this wretchedly grandiose and wonderfully unhinged had to come from a somehow genuine place; from someone who has had to deal with the love and loathing and pleasure and destruction of alcohol in his life in a deeply personal way, and is responding to it not with denial or self-pity but nutso pizzazz.
I think it’s in the nature of creative people to try and capture the contradictory, the inexplicable, and often gloriously-unjustifiable behavior they see in others and acknowledge in themselves. Because none of our truly-interesting struggles are one-sided or cleanly-resolved. We have the most ingenious ways of fighting back against life and asserting ourselves and I really celebrate that; I find stories where everyone behaves exactly as the majority wants them to behave to be insufferable, because that majority can be used to enforce denial of what members of the majority deny with in themselves – all their delicious, weird uniqueness.
I guess that’s the closest I can come to explaining The Rothko. Maybe, if anyone asks, I’ll just point them here and hope for the best.
I’ve never been good at laying on a beach. Laying on a beach is like graduate-level sitting around; and I’m not even good at basic sitting around.
That said – when I finish the first draft of this novel, I am so going to go lay on a beach.
I had a very nice conversation with the head of an Orange County theatre company yesterday. I had only called to inquire about tickets and he recognized my name. I guess he is starting to get actors at his auditions who learned about them through my bulletin board. That gives me a great feeling; to know that I’ve helped just a little in the process of talent coming together with opportunity. As I say on the bulletin board page, it can only do good for Orange County theatre.
He offered his opinion that, as regional theater communities start to build Facebook networks and pages, and web pages like my own (which the Google algorithm has really run with on behalf of those actors, bless that algorithm) provide free information to artists, it will break some of the power of expensive middlemen like some of the casting publications which shall remain nameless but which any actor or producer knows well.
It’s blindingly obvious why. The listing service charges the producer – and community theater producers are almost always broke. And the listing service charges the hopeful actor – and hopeful actors are almost always broke. The balance has always been in the tradeoff between the opportunities which can be discovered via free information (formerly not many) vs. the opportunities available for those with the money to invest.
Recently I’ve read a fair bit of commentary about an unintended class barrier forming in many of the arts; where the building of necessary early contacts and work experiences often depends on working unpaid internships in an expensive city like L.A. Unless you have extensive savings or wealthy parents, you’re crippled from day one. This has some resonance with me – as having local family was of big help when I landed my internship in the movie business, and has been of big help many times since. I also had good credit, which I needed to rely on when that internship took its sweet time about turning into a job.
It is true that this stuff costs money, and to a certain extent I’m alright with that. One day I’ll publish a long-simmering blog entry about how a professional mindset requires treating your professionala ambition in the arts the way entrepreneurs do in other fields – that is, with the understanding that investment is required to develop and promote your “product”.
But if money can be saved, the opportunistic and hard-working who before might have been blocked out by their lack of resources will dive right into the money-saving opportunity, and their success will inspire others to inevitably follow. That’s capitalism in action and it’s pretty cool when it works like that; except for the employees of those nameless publications that for so long have been able to milk both sides from an unassialable position of necessity.
There is value in their quality control, and the legitimacy they confer simply by asking professionalism of the people who list casting opportunities. Goodness knows I don’t think Craigslist (aka Craig’s Bad Grammar Exploitapalooza) is the ideal replacement model. But if actors can find a satisfying amount of opportunities without them, and producers can find a satisfying amount of talent without them, things are going to get interesting awfully quickly.
I guess I’m proud to be part of the disruption. On that subject, I can highly recommend this e-book I read recently, David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital, an extremely practical argument for and guide to the world of self-published books. As the manuscript of this novel cruises closer to completion (topped 70,000 words yesterday!), and I polish up the final pieces for my intended short story collection, the skills and encouragement available in the book will, I believe, serve me well. And they come from the same place – breaking down the barriers of entry, so even broke slobs like me can put something out there and seek an audience with it.
Because I was a math junkie long before I even thought about writing, I tend to apply all sorts of horribly-nerdy mathematical/organizational principles to my writing. I keep a spreadsheet list of basically everything I would like to write – screenplays, short stories, novels, stage plays of any length; and one thing that has mutated far beyond a screenplay and which I might have to re-conceive as some kind of limited series for TV/web.
Even when I have drafted something, that doesn’t always remove it from the list; since, after all, major re-writes are just a part of the trade. The list can be daunting – these days, if I get a new idea that’s too good to dismiss, my first reaction actually tends to be irritation; since it means a shuffling around of priorities. There are worse problems to have, I know. And I know that the glut of them means there are some I will simply never get to. One hopes that some subconscious Lodestar assures that the worst ones are the ones that go unrealized; but how well can we ever really know that?
The top of the list right now has been unchanging for a couple of months – the novel, followed by a couple of screenplay re-writes. One of the re-writes was scheduled to be finished on April 1st for reasons that I won’t jinx by describing here. I wrapped up an early version of that re-write on March 15th and sent it out to a couple members of the team, in the hopes that they could read it in a week or so and bounce it back in case anything further needed to be done before the bigwigs read it on the first. This is a relatively common scenario for a re-write out here, in that it can actually break into components along the way.
To a shock so great I hardly know how to process it; not only did they find that the March 15th draft answered all their concerns, they felt so good about it that they started spreading it out further before they had even shared this good news to me. It’s the best possible scenario for this project, and a massive load off my mind. What it also means is that one of the biggest, most time-consuming titles parked at the top of that list gets to disappear completely for the forseeable future. I won’t have to work on this script again unless the team has broadened and re-configured in a way that means we’re closer to making the movie. At that point, I would be in a pretty good mood for re-writing, I guess.
This has been the most lunchpail-y month I can remember when it comes to writing. I have my daily quota to hit on the novel, and parallel deadlines on a couple of screenplay re-writes, and for the last few weeks (other than the two days I lost to what I’m calling Pantstastrophe 2013), I have met those goals every day, Monday through Friday. And then, on nights and weekends, I’m usually working on other, more personal or lower-priority projects. Because I am insane.
The math nerd in me always finds a way to be useful when it comes to divvying up the big tasks. I don’t know exactly how long the first-draft manuscript is going to be for this novel, but it’s likely to land between 85- and 90,000 words. We just crossed 57,000 words so we’re trucking along. That estimate is based on the number of chapters left to write, and I generally know some of what’s happening in each chapter, but the length tends to vary in execution. And as often happens with me, the execution ends up being longer than the estimate – I usually over-estimate the amount of plot I will need.
That can muck up the equations. Because if I write 1,000 words, I’ve beaten my daily quota. But if those 1,000 words turn a 3,500-word chapter into a 4,000-word chapter, I’ve actually just made the whole book longer and I’m only 500 words closer to the end of it.
I saw that happening on the most recent chapter, and as the way through the muddle, I just used today to write the overage. A little Saturday overtime to keep us on-track. Makes sense.
I drew this years ago; which reminds me: a) I can’t draw, and b) I still feel this way.