I played music all through my childhood and college – music was one of my two majors. I almost never play now, unfortunately; maybe in the future there will be room in my life to let it a little ways back in, because you never completely forget the language.
Because of this, I think the metaphorical frame of music informs a lot of my understanding of writing. I think a lot about rhythm in my dialogue, the pacing of story beats. Since I write across a lot of different forms and genres, it’s important to understand that each has a distinct tempo and customary rhythms. Sometimes it’s good to thwart them, but it helps to first understand and be aware of them.
I have an interesting variety of projects on my plate right now. For about a month there I was working on rewriting an action screenplay for a director. That has been a real education because the modern high-octane genre is not one I’ve spent a lot of time writing in. Taking his draft and some other samples, I realized that modern writing in this area moves terrifyingly fast.
If you think of the story as a progression of “beats” tied to actions that affect the direction of the story, screenwriting has a fast tempo to begin with. Common wisdom these days is that an average scene or beat will top out around 3 pages; and if you’re going to go longer, it had better be for a very good reason.
In these action scripts, though, everything is compressed. If you think of an action sequence as the modern equivalent to a musical number, then you know that the narrative is largely suspended for those minutes so we can enjoy some kinetics. There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s one of the great sensory pleasures of cinema and I think writers look down on that at their peril.
So what action film producers expect is a lot of story beats in a lot less time. Now you’re trying to turn over story points in 1-2 pages instead of 3. That affects everything – the mix of dialogue and visuals you use, the number and construction of subplots, how you develop character…you can see why writers often have to resort to familiar narrative arcs and thuddingly-obvious declamations in dialogue – they’re just not getting time to do anything else. Even a scene like Indiana Jones re-entering Marion’s life in Raiders of the Lost Ark would be an indulgence these days – the studio would be wondering if it could be done in four lines of dialogue instead. Basically, in a medium that’s already really, really hard; good action writing is really, really much harder; and I don’t think the form we’re pressured to conform to is necessarily helping the final product.
Nevertheless, I have had to put the action script temporarily on the back burner, because of another project which may or may not lead to an exciting announcement in the weeks ahead. That involves unpacking an old script of mine and prepping a re-write, which is interesting because my outlining methods were much different back then, and now I’m rediscovering the structure of my own work.
But there’s a business-end step I’m still waiting on before I can really dive in, which leaves me in this in-between space where I don’t want to go back to the big action screenplay, but want to keep myself busy.
So I’m working on a new script for Earbud Theater. I finished a rough assembly of Habitat, but that is going to take a lot of editing and effects work which is beyond me, and since everyone involved is on volunteer time that means the timetable for its debut is outside my control. But that doesn’t mean I can’t get another episode in-process; and now that I have one recording session under my belt, I can make my post-production life a lot easier during the writing. Habitat was adapted from a screenplay, and thus has a LOT of scenes. But this new one is going to be an original tailored for the medium, and so I’m letting the tempo adjust a little.
I don’t know if there are hard and fast rules for an audio drama, but I think it gets to be closer to a stage play than a screenplay. Stage plays get to hang around in scenes for much longer – hell, I performed in a production of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile, which is essentially a single unbroken 75-minute scene. I’ve performed in enough Shakespeare to know that he rarely needed more than 10-20 scenes to tell his epic stories; so why would a disposable guns-and-explosions piece need 40 beats’ worth of plot?
I’ve written enough for the stage to know the different muscles involved, and I’m applying them a little bit here and really enjoying the result. I’m letting scenes breathe out to 5-6 pages, enough that there’s still a quasi-cinematic sense of motion and story advancement, but room to really use dialogue and character in a way that a lot of commercial screenwriting doesn’t permit.
This is not to knock commercial screenwriting at all – everything has its place. But I find I function best when I’m able to keep moving from one style to another; so if, as I said, I’ve had to spend a month or so writing super-compressed beats and crazy twisty plots, to stretch out into this audio play practically feels like a vacation.
I’ve committed myself to an aggressive schedule for getting out the first draft of a screenplay I’m working on. That’s usually the good play when people are actually waiting to see it, as in this case.
Last Friday was when I and another party pulled the trigger on me starting the draft; I wrote the first page immediately after as a kind of commemoration, but this was really the week I was going to crank up the machinery.
Monday, however, turned out to be a loss because I was recovering from the overnight shoots for the short film I worked on over the weekend. Then I had to spend most of Tuesday and Wednesday reading plays because of a committee I volunteered for. So it was really only yesterday that I was finally able to force this up to the top of the priority list where it is likely to remain for the next 5-6 weeks.
And, both yesterday and today, I hit a healthy quota of pages that keeps me on-target to reach my goal. I’ll write tomorrow as well just to make up for another lost weekday, but I should be able to enjoy Sunday off and then start Monday morning feeling on top of the workload. One of the healthiest things for myself, I’ve discovered, is when I can definitively shut the file and folder for the day and then dedicate my focus to other things. That guilty, sluggish space of half-productivity, where you’re doing nothing useful even as a chorus cries vaguely in your brain that you SHOULD be doing something useful right now – that’s almost worse than out-and-out sloth.
So, feeling good right now, and able to say – nothing more on that tonight.
This doesn’t mean I don’t have about 40 other projects/goals that could stand some attention.
Happy to announce that later this month, I’ll be recording an episode of Earbud Theater, a podcast dedicated to original audio dramas in the sci-fi genre. The episode, which I also wrote, is called Habitat, and is adapted from a screenplay of mine that I have no small future ambitions for, so it will be great to try it out in this format.
My talented and beloved friend Chirstine Weatherup will be starring with me – she plays a traveler on a deep space mission whose ship crashes on an alien planet; and I play…well, my role is harder to explain.
Not sure yet when it will be posted but I think we’ll be aiming for December. I’m a big fan of Earbud’s mission, so I can’t wait to get into the studio and play.
Last week I was expecting to get back the manuscript of my novel from my partner so I could start editing. I still don’t have it back so, restless, I started working on this short film script I’d brainstormed recently that I mentioned in my last post. Exactly one week later, I have a first draft. Funny thing, though – in fully-exploring the story and main character it’s gone well beyond anything like a standard short film. The first draft is 45 pages. So is it a super-long short that I need to cut down to 30 pages at most? Or a mini-feature? Or an episode of “The Outer Limits” with no “Outer Limits” banner to appear under?
What’s funny is, because this script is primarily about a single character alone in an environment, I looked up Sofia Coppola’s shooting draft for “Somewhere” – it’s only 43 pages long. That became a 97-minute feature that frequently moved at a pace which was frakking excruciating, so maybe this is 45 pages that becomes 75 minutes. In which case – um, I think I just wrote the first draft of a feature in a week.
I had an idea for a short film that was pretty exciting to me. It felt a little more substantial than the last couple of shorts I wrote; maybe an ambitious 15-20 pages with room for a couple of layers, a real emotional journey for the character, but still very producible on the cheap.
About 72 hours ago I up and started writing it. Now there’s 28 pages of it and I think I have at least 7-10 pages left to write.
I am a believer in the principle of “write your story, figure out the format later”, but this does put me in an odd category. If it’s a short film it’s definitely an oxymoron of one. But we’re nowhere near feature length; and right now any ponderings I have that it could be expanded to that length strike me as highly-dangerous. I don’t think the idea as conceived sustains that; but who knows?
What I do know is: during this restless week where I’ve been waiting to get back to work on editing the novel, I have unintentionally gone beyond keeping my fingers occupied. And that this story has been dragging me out of bed to write for the last couple of nights, and I usually take that as a good sign.
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.
I drew this years ago; which reminds me: a) I can’t draw, and b) I still feel this way.
It is rare that I have too much of my creative life penciled in for far in advance – the typical cycle of a stage play is about as far as it extends, and acting almost never takes up a full day except for those rare days when I have a matinee and evening show. I think I sweated out about 8 pounds the day I had to do two performances of The Odd Couple in August in a warehouse with no air conditioning.
So we’re in an unusual period right now – one which explains why there hasn’t been much blogging. Frankly – there’s a lot of writing to do. That’s a good thing, both for professional satisfaction and the occasional Actual Check For Money. It does mean that a few more personal impulses get shuffled to the back of the line for awhile, and that long, involved blog posts don’t surface nearly so often. Actually, there hopefully will be at least one in the near future – my pants got stolen on Monday, which turned out to be…complicated, because of what was in the pants at the time.
But for now, most of my writing time through May 1st is accounted for. A few years back I was hired off Craigslist to co-write a novel. You might call it a ghost-writing scenario, except that I am going to receive full co-author credit, so I guess “proxy writing” is more accurate – it’s his world and concept, but I think he would agree that the majority of the prose and a lot of the narrative connective tissue is coming from me.
We produced about 40% of the book and then ran aground for awhile; but, just before the New Year he came back with renewed determination to see it through, and we’ve set May 1st as the deadline for a first draft. That’s totally manageable if I adopt a “punching the timeclock” mentality. Monday through Friday, I know how many words I need to get done, and so far it’s fallen very effectively into a pattern of getting done in two daily sessions – one post-breakfast and one post-lunch.
As for the third session – I have a hard deadline of April 1st to turn in a re-write of my Vegas screenplay; there are a lot of inside-baseball reasons for that and I have a “don’t jinx it” attitude regarding discussing such details in public. And I just had a long notes meeting with the director on my micro-budget thriller – he’s headed to Colombia for a few weeks and I’d like to have the new draft of that waiting for him when he returns.
That makes for a crowded March, and probably demands that I squeeze in that third writing session every workday – and if I divide between the two scripts I should get everything done on schedule.
What’s funny is – on top of all that, I often find myself compelled, on evenings when I’m being the penny-pinching shut-in I usually am, to fit in yet a fourth session after dinner, to work on something that’s more purely “mine”. William Goldman said it was essential for the screenwriter’s sanity to work on things that they felt some control over. And I’m working on some short stage pieces as well as the last short story for the collection I am still planning to publish, in addition to a more personal screenplay, in addition to oh such an endless list of somedays.
Right now, though – I’ve got priorities, and I’ve got a plan. Funny what a little structure can do for the writing life.
I sometimes overlook sharing shareable information on the public blog when the private version of the announcement is couched in an overall private blog post. Just the way my brain works.
Anyway, it deserves announcing that I finished the first draft of my new spec screenplay a week ago; as I shared it is a horror script, which is a first for my portfolio and something I enjoyed the hell out of crafting. My first goal had been a lean 90-95 pages; as I got into the “mayhem” half of the script and started plotting out gags and kills, I revised my goal to “let’s just squeeze under 100″. Instead it’s 101 pages. I can get that down with time; and it’s still one of the leanest scripts I’ve written since I started actually knowing what I was doing.
It’s out to the inner circle right now, and once I’ve collected feedback from them, I’ll make some tweaks and then share it with a strategic few more. In Hollywood it’s always been true – It Takes a Village – and I’ll need some friendly Villagers in my posse to get this thing rolling.
If it sounds like I’m risking some exposure of what will be barely more than a first draft – that’s what I’m doing. But I have faith in the outline and the premise and the energy of the script. One of the reasons I spend so long on the brainstorming/outlining phase is because I am lazy in the long term – I want to write absolutely as few drafts as possible, so I try and lick the fundamentals before I ever open up Celtx (the screenwriting software I use for reasons of it being free).
As for the next project – well, I’m going to spend some time on a prose commission, as well as try and draft the final piece for the short story collection I want to publish. I have two very personal, rule-breaking screenplays that I have been tinkering with for years and years and years; during windows like this they tend to get a few more pages added to them; although it would be nice to actually finish one or both of them before I die.
I’ll owe re-writes on two other screenplays before April, both of them requested by people on the respective teams for those projects. It feels good to have a lot of work out there with allies who actively want to bring it to life. I basically say it every year, but there’s a real chance of making something great this year. I feel like I’m doing my part towards that goal, anyway.
I didn’t celebrate much, unless you count ordering a birthday cake milkshake at The Counter. In a way, spending a week away from a deadline – even a self-driven one – is a kind of vacation unto itself. But honestly, I should at least buy a nice drink. I’m meeting someone for drinks tonight. I’ll make sure and do that.
I’ve reached 80 pages on the screenplay, and have another writing session to look forward to in a couple of hours. And my chances of bringing this first draft in under 100 pages as I so want to do are…decent? Not guaranteed, but possible; and there are some built-in indulgences that will probably get sacrificed along the way.
On New Year’s Day I had 37 pages, so this has been a stupefying pace for me, and I think I’m starting to feel the fatigue. While writing at lunch today I felt like the stage directions lacked the manic punch I had been enjoying so much about this script. And I worry that I’m out-writing my sense of the coherence and rhythm of the story.
Lately I am hearing some other professional screenwriters discuss the concept of “the vomit draft” – where the point is you just get the first draft over with as absolutely quickly as possible; without heed to logic or cleanliness or grammar or anything. Since it’s such a torturous behemoth of a task getting it on paper to begin with; the thought is to just purge until it’s done, baby.
I admit there’s a compelling argument there, and I am certainly adoping a version of that approach – albeit probably slower than most people would consider a truly vomitous pace. And this could just be momentary fatigue, but it may be that this burst that has fueled me for the last two-three weeks might not be enough to get me across the finish line with quality work. Can I force my way there? I am mighty close, and the final pages of a script tend to come most quickly with me. It has been far too long since I got to celebrate a finished feature screenplay – the first draft of my most recent script is dated at the end of May, 2011; and I’ve been mostly consumed by prose and re-writes since. Although goodness knows, for the last few new scripts I have barely even let myself celebrate.
That might be a nice course to reverse. I have good, incredibly supportive people in my life who know what an accomplishment it is to finish a script. They would want to celebrate with me, even if it’s just going out for a simple toast. Maybe I ought to do that – finish this damn script, and then invite people to celebrate it with me.
After that – well, there are those two personal screenplays that have been so long in the works – both are maybe 60-70% drafted. In my dream world, I would actually get first drafts of both done this year, and thus be closer to the standard I used to hold myself to when it came to screenwriting pace. Do I have that much vomit in me? I guess we’ll see.