I’m at the Airport Marriott right now, waiting to shuttle back over and catch a flight to Chicago. I checked in early and shuttled over here because I prefer this lobby to the airport terminal.
Yesterday I woke up with 120 pages of an unfinished screenplay. I met a friend for breakfast, and then parked myself at the Central Library in front of a big window looking out onto the duck pond. And by noon I had written five pages, typed those transcendent words: “FADE OUT”, and had a draft of 125 pages.
However, since the day wasn’t over yet, I decided to put off circulating the draft in order to say if I could ratchet that page count back with a comb through the script. This took several horus in and around packing and prepping for the trip, but it was well worth it – and at 9pm I was able to circulate a “finished” first draft of 120 pages to the director and a couple of trusted readers. I like the symmetry of that.
120 is sort of a talismanic number in Hollywood. If your page count is above that people get as nervous as if you start saying “Candyman” into a mirror. It’s not as if it’s a guarantee your movie will end up bloated or bad at 121, it’s just that they start worrying about the worry it will trigger in others until it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. While every reader fancies that THEY will judge something purely on its merits, they always believe that the next reader in the chain wll just look at the page count and the cloud of negativity will doom the content.
I’m sitting in the 13th row of this airplane I’ll be boarding, so I obviously give less of a damn about such things; I just wanted to get the story on paper. However, I do want to make money, so I’m glad we’re at least at 120. 115 would be even better, since while 120 itself is not outright terrifying, its position at the upper limit of acceptable is at least partially-alarming by proximity. I know all this sounds ridiculously stupid, but so much of the game out here is about confidence.
I am confident we can wrench it down further. Even after my comb-through, first drafts tend to contain redundancies, over-describing, all sorts of things. And I went into a lot of detail with all the action sequences, something that will be less necessary on the page as the action-minded director and I start working them out.
So 115 may be in the future; or even less. But that’s a worry for another day, and so much smaller a worry than putting something on a blank page. Once again, that process is finished. I have written another script. And as I prepare to travel, visit loved ones in a loved city, I can move it off the top spot on my writing “To Do” list.
Of course I’ll be writing on my holiday. I’ll be eating and sleeping, won’t I?
Working on this action script has been an education. For one, I am realizing that you shouldn’t fear writing yourself into a ridiculous situation, because you can always write your way out of it with something even more ridiculous – and, in fact, people often pays their money for just such pleasures. On top of that, action sequences are, these days, never left solely to the writer; the director and many, many others will work to build it, so my concern is primarily specifying where the plot is when we enter, and where it will be when we leave, and just making sure the reader stays entertained.
It’s also – and I knew this was coming – a hell of a lesson in pacing. As I’ve written before, modern action scripts turn over story beats at a terrifying rate. And I wanted to see if I could evolve my style to work within those confines. I specifically plotted out my treatment to include a lot of twists and turns and action variety; but it meant a story with more beats than any I had written before.
The last treatment I wrote was for a horror movie – 22 beats intended to fill 95 pages. That script never got drafted, but that’s to do with whom I was pitching it to. Still, the story felt solid and each beat would have broken down to about 4.32 pages; a pace I felt very comfortable with.
The treatment for this action script has 45 beats to it. Now, “beats” are a very arbitrary and inexact term of measure. It’s sort of like paragraph breaks in writing; it goes more by when you feel a shift in direction, or location, or tone. Still, my aim was a 110-page draft, which would have required averaging 2.44 pages/beat. There’s evolving my style and there’s outright mutating it.
I’m near the home stretch now, and my latest calculation shows me at 3.02 pages/beat. Now that’s pretty great progress in this new direction for my work, but it still sets us up for a first draft of as long as 136 pages, far longer than I would want to turn in to any producer or buyer.
First drafts can always be trimmed – in fact, they pretty much always should be trimmed – and the director I’m working with will, I’m sure, have some good perspective to offer. In addition, I just finished working with producer on probably the most punishingly-extreme redline polish I’ve ever performed on a script of mine. I thought it was my tightest script, and by the time we were finished, it was 10 pages shorter without losing a bit of story. I would love to turn in a script below 120 pages; and I would love to do it without cheating. That will be a different skillset than what I’m developing now, but I think it can be done.
4.32 pages/beat to 3.02 pages/beat. I wonder how long beats were before Star Wars came along and permanently adreanalized all our movie brains?
So you may have heard that, for several years now, I have been working, a bit at a time, on a script inspired by my experience in a college theater department. It is a story that, even back then, I knew I wanted to tell, but I waited over a decade to write even a single scene of it, because I wanted a) the distance, and b) the storytelling muscles, to do it the justice I felt it needed. Basically, I waited until I couldn’t wait any longer.
The script is called The Ghost Light and for its sake I have broken a great many of my most sacred rules. I did not do a traditional outline. I blocked out no scene order. I didn’t even write scenes in order, I just picked a random place on the canvas, started writing bits, and watched the world of it take shape while I discovered it.
This has asked for levels of creativity that are beyond sane. I have had to populate a fictional theatre department with fictional people – faculty and students both. I refuse to just port myself and my friends over onto the page, I think it’s lazy, not to mention rude. Sure, I took some real incidents and Benihana-d up some people I knew for raw materials, but all of the major characters in this thing have grown into their own identities in that frightening way characters can to writers.
I have to remember what year the students are in, what their specialties are, I have to watch the calendar of the school year that the story covers and track what shows they would be working on and in what jobs.
I have had to program a full imaginary season of college theater, including mainstage shows, student-directed black box shows, auditions, special fundraisers, and class exercises. There’s one Shakespeare play involved – Twelfth Night – the rest of the plays that appear in the script, for rights reasons, are all made up. I had to invent plays from different time periods, title them, name their authors, write excerpts that would sound authentic from their era and school of drama. I’ve written fake audition monologues, fake song lyrics with melodies that only exist in my head – all wheels within the larger wheels of The Ghost Light.
I am pretty sure this is the craziest thing I have ever attempted, writing-wise, and it is far from done. Long ago, it mutated far beyond screenplay length. I don’t want to turn this into a book, I am burning to tell this story in script form, because I don’t think that anyone has before without falling prey to the impulse to pump up the prettiness and ambition and turn it into Fame. The theatre kids at my mid-sized University in the Midwest were the freaks and geeks – hell I remember a notice from a nationwide casting call for the ACTUAL Freaks and Geeks on the department bulletin board. But we were beautiful, and I was so in love with the crazy, metamorphosizing agony and ecstasy of all of it.
So far I have written 173 pages; which is, again, beyond sane. But finally, in recent months, I have allowed myself to start thinking about how to sort this material and structure it in a way that accounted for presentation. I started to think of it as a miniseries in chapters. TV is evolving rapidly, and series that go direct to Netflix have demonstrated an astounding ability to stretch the old time limitations that used to be imposed by commercial slots.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m under no delusion this gets made any time soon, even if it actually turns out to be brilliant. I will need a hell of a lot of fame and clout to even propose this, because the idea of breaking this story, this particular story, into a traditional 22 chunks of comedy in 21 minutes each hurts me almost physically. So far I have followed the story where it has taken me, and I am determined to continue that, and do it the way it needs or not at all.
But, I have allowed the idea that it splits into things that the audience can digest at an easier pace. Questions then follow…how many things? And of what length? In recent days I finally tried to articulate an “Episode 1″ based on the material I have written. I did so…SO much cutting and pasting and rearranging scenes. I wrote new linking and bookending material. I settled on the themes for the episode and the central characters from the massive ensemble that we could focus on for telling that story, while setting up as much of the world and its population as I could get away with.
When I was done slapping and gluing all that, I had 68 pages that formed a cohesive opening chapter. 68 pages is just such a stupid number to try and apply to any conventional formatting whatsoever. And yet it feels like the first chapter of this story; and it feels like, if I had to guess right now, that there would be about three more chapters, maybe at more like 50-60 pages apiece.
A miniseries of 4 50-70-minute episodes. I’ve never heard of that – then again, I don’t think anybody had heard of a “season” of television consisting of three 90-minute movies before Sherlock came along. Media just keeps evolving.
In the meantime, I’m not going to worry about it. I’m going to tell my story. And I guess finishing a chapter counts as an accomplishment, although one that I am struggling to categorize. I can’t dwell on that, though, there is a lot left to do – and for the first time EVER, another human now has some pages for The Ghost Light and will be reading them.
I wonder if it’s just crazy and awful and I’ve chased a mirage? Maybe I’ll never know. But hey – a script! Or, a partial one. A sub-script. Accomplishment!
I’ve been exchanging e-mails with an aspiring writer that I don’t know. He queried an old e-mail address of mine that is apparently still listed in a few places from my development executive days. I haven’t been an exec for about nine years, and the company I worked for has been defunct for about that long, but it can be difficult to run down all the places where these listings still exist, especially since companies out there probably sell each other information which they then “monetize” by selling hope of access to aspiring writers. 200 accurate listings doesn’t look as sexy as 1,000 listings.
I think one of the most frustrating mysteries for writers outside the system is: how did the people who “made it” get their material read? Those stories tend not to get told in detail, and I understand why – they tend to be so convoluted, coincidental, and ultimately dependent on “who you know” that none of them seem to have any connection to the writer’s ability. And while it is true that a great writer who never talks to anyone might find themselves trumped in earnings by a merely good writer who markets the crap out of themselves, the real flaw, I think, is in seeing “who you know” as some immutable fact, or some bequest of fortune that can’t be changed.
If one of the most frustrating arts in writing is how to get read, then one of the secret truths you have to embrace in mastering that art is you can get to know more people. And it can actually be fun.
For the purposes of this entry, I am counting myself as someone who “made it”, to the extent that I have sold and optioned material, earned membership in the WGA, and have ongoing interests with some producers and directors and executives out there. Trust me when I say that neither my bank account nor my own ambitions are satisfied that I’ve “made it”, but I know that there are a lot of people out there who would dearly love to just have made it this far.
I was fortunate in that I successfully used a Trojan Horse method – I worked my way into town as a script-reading intern, platformed that into a development executive job, and then, by the time my screenwriting had progressed to the point that I thought I had something of good enough quality to circulate, I was already regularly in conversations with execs and literary agents, some of whom owed me favors. That’s how I got read, that’s how I got my first agent, and my first agent got me my first sale.
Obviously, not everyone can replicate this approach. There could be a whole book about how you build your network to the point where you material is organically circulating to where you want it. Hell, probably just start with reading Dale Carnegie. But the idea is to stop viewing yourself as Over Here and the people you need to reach as Over There behind some unbreachable stone wall. You spend a lot of ineffectual time with catapults in that metaphor.
What you must remember is that by writing, you are already part of a community: the community of people who Do Things. Just by finishing a script, you beat out 98% of the people who ever mused to themselves “I bet I’d be a good writer”. Now, of course, once you’ve beat out that 98%, you have to beat out the 98% of the survivors who finish one script and then say “well, this is so perfect, I obviously don’t need to re-write it, or learn anything else about writing, or even bother starting a second script”. There are a LOT of rounds of culling to this game, and the numbers are brutal.
But that’s for later. Right now, you’re someone who Does Things. That means you need to put yourself around other people who Do Things. You’ll find that you love their company – they inspire and encourage you to work, and set a great example by being their own brilliant selves. You want to be better just because they’re so damned good. They are a vast improvement over the company of people who Talk About Things.
So writing communities are great, but just being in one is not enough. Critique each other, share wisdom, hold each others’ feet to the fire. And in that process, don’t just improve yourself, get to know the people who are serious and have direction – they are a very minor subset even within the group of people who Do Things.
Inevitably, you’re going to need help – an introduction, a read, a recommendation. The best way to get someone to help you is to help them, and a good writer can definitely help someone. Craigslist is full of listings from aspiring filmmakers looking for short scripts to shoot. Hey, maybe they don’t need a script, but they do need crew. There’s a director I am now developing a horror movie with – we met when I answered an ad to be his 1st A.D. for a short film. It went to festival, his stock rose, we got along well and he loved my writing. So now when people with money are starting to look at him for feature film work, I’m near the top of his list to bring in if there’s a need for a writer.
Build alliances with good people, and you could find yourself at a film festival and someone with money is asking YOU to please send them a script. That’s the secret, really – the best way to get someone to read your script is to get them to want to ask you for it.
This film festival example is just one way to go about it – but the trick is to see past this mentality where you’re on the outside trying to lob your script in. Trust me – if you wrote something, you’re inside already. You just have to learn the landscape.
A Read is a precious currency in Hollywood, and is not spent lightly; there are just too many bad scripts to be foolhardy with your reading time. And a Recommendation is even more dear. And I’m a writer, trust me I know the deep-down desire for the material itself to render all such equations moot. But writing quality is not a fixed value – everyone has different needs, and the creative partners you seek out are going to have different tastes (and if you don’t see directors and producers as creative partners then you need to adjust your mentality). Then there’s the etiquette that comes with these reads and recommendations – far from a perfect system, but it does keep a great deal of the worst stuff off our desks.
I know very few people get into writing because of an overabundance of social skills, and fewer still pursue it with the thought that growing their social skills is going to be a job requirement. But the latter part is true and – although this is for a different entry – it can even make you a better writer.
Good writing is good writing, but that is not the same as matching the right script to the right opportunity. Not even close. By building your network you can really forge the kind of connections that allow you to do that sort of matchmaking and build enough credibility to start getting those reads and recommendations. Personally, I think it works better than endlessly pursuing the impossible goal of The Perfect Query Letter. As my example proves, a lot of the time the person you’re querying might not even be looking anymore.
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.