Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

October 23rd, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka reflects on where she is as she heads into her first draft:

Can it be? Can we already be at the last week of Prep, our last week before FADE IN?

This week, we created our outlines for our screenplays. It was a rather daunting assignment but, having learned my lesson in Master Brainstorming List week, I plugged away early and came up with something I think I can work with. Miranda mentioned in her Dispatch that she found the subplots to be the hardest part. I agree, but I’m pretty sure in my situation, I have too many. That’s OK. Several years ago, a screenwriting instructor imparted me with this mantra to use when I’m not sure what to do:

“I’ll fix it later.”

Simple words, but I can’t tell you how many times these words have kept me going, powering me through a draft. So, my outline is imperfect, but you know what? I’ll fix it later.

In addition to this being our last week of Prep, can this really be our last week of required Dispatches? I must say, I had no idea what “weekly Dispatches” entailed at first but I’ve actually really enjoyed writing them. I don’t think I’ve ever reflected so much on my writing in my life! I’ve appreciated all of you who’ve reflected alongside me, tolerated my tangents, and offered words of encouragement. Many thanks also to Scott for letting us use his blog as our weekly soapbox. You may hear from me again at the very end of this Quest (I don’t even want to think about it, sniff, sniff), but goodbye for now – the next time you hear from me, I’ll have a first draft! Wish me luck and best of luck to all of you, too. Now…. pages!!!

Thanks, Waka, for your Dispatches!

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

October 16th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka details some movies she loves:

Our assignment this week was describing our 10 plot points. Because of our extensive prep, this came together pretty easily. In this past week’s teleconference, Scott mentioned to us that there’d be only two more weeks of dispatches, and then we concentrate completely on pages. I’ve been thinking about what to write—and I thought at this close-to-jumping-off point, I’d write about what motivates me, i.e. movies I’ve loved.

When I was little, my dad would take us to movies. Sometimes age-inappropriate (Jaws), sometimes a little over our heads (Chariots of Fire), sometimes scary (trash-compactor scene in Star Wars). As a parent, I realize now that my dad probably wanted to see these movies himself and that it’s pretty easy to babysit kids at a movie theater (especially a kid like me who went slack-jawed and didn’t blink once a movie started). I remember these movies so much better than a lot of material I read when I was a kid. For instance, I’ve been re-reading the Narnia Chronicles to my boys and honestly I have NO recollection of anything that’s happened in about half of them. The best movies, though, have stayed with me. Although I didn’t understand everything that was going on in Chariots of Fire, after watching it as a kid, I was sure that I was going to become an Olympic runner. I even woke up at 6 AM for several weeks to train by running around the neighborhood – pretty amazing that a movie could have that kind of effect on an 8 year-old. After watching Breakfast Club during my tween/early teen years, I wrote in my diary about how much this movie “got” what I was feeling. My friends in high school thought I was a little odd when I told them I had a crush on Tommy Lee Jones (based on his performance in The Fugitive). That speech, “What I want out of each and every one of you is a hard-target search of every gas station, residence, warehouse, farmhouse, henhouse, outhouse and doghouse in that area…Your fugitive’s name is Dr. Richard Kimble. Go get him.” Forget Harrison Ford—at that time of my life, it was all about Tommy Lee Jones.

Before Sunrise, Lost in Translation, Hoosiers, Dead Poets Society, Shawshank Redemption—these were the types of films I’d watch and take a breath only when they were over. When Harry Met Sally, Say Anything, Almost Famous, Clueless, Four Weddings and a Funeral, American Beauty, The Descendants, Jerry Maguire—they completed me. There are some in my list of favorites that are a little more obscure. Take, for instance, Mystic Pizza. I watch it now, and sure, it makes me cringe a little. But as a teenage girl, I loved that movie. Shakespeare in Love was the one, though, that made me realize, I want to do that.

So, two weeks before FADE IN, I am thinking again about all these movies I love. I’ve been told that Breakfast Club wouldn’t be made if it were pitched today. That the romcom is dead. That Shakespeare in Love and Four Weddings and a Funeral were British productions that would never have been made in the U.S. That working in Hollywood is called “show business” and not “the artists’ colony” for a reason. That being said, I’m still going to write something I love. If at some point my movie is made, and there’s a person in the audience who goes slack-jawed and doesn’t blink for the entirety of the film, and is… changed at the end… well, I think that would be one of the best feelings in world, don’t you?

(I should also mention that my crush on Tommy Lee Jones had waned considerably over the years, and ended quite definitively after watching Hope Springs.)

Some nostalgia may be setting in with the Questers as they only have 1 more week of Dispatches before I ‘release’ them from that obligation to allow them to focus exclusively on pounding out a first draft.

So Waka’s post today offers a great opportunity to reflect on this question: What movies inspire you as a writer?

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

October 9th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka waxes eloquent on the value of working with other writers:

In my day job, I write supplementary social studies curriculum units. There are a lot of similarities to screenwriting, (in particular if I were ever hired to write on a particular topic, or rewrite an existing one) in that I’m assigned a topic and then I come up with lessons. Sometimes an expert is called in to write the content handouts and I write the activities. Sometimes, I have to research from often a knowledge point close to “zero,” come up to speed on the topic, and then write lessons that are meaningful and accessible to a middle- and high-school audience. Especially when I’m the sole author of a unit, I ask for help. I scour the Internet for information. I write to people I don’t know for permission to use their photographs or their stories. I ask teachers to fieldtest my lessons. They ask their students for feedback. Always, ALWAYS their help makes the end product better.

For the story I’ve been working on currently, I’ve also been receiving a lot of help. Although my natural inclination is to hole up and write by myself, tell myself “this is genius!” and not ask for help, for this story, I’ve been offered a lot of help, and I’ve accepted it. Sandy has put me in touch with a friend of hers who works at a place similar to where my story takes place. Miranda sends me info about similar projects and initiatives similar to ones that are taking place in my script. I needed a business plan, and since the bulk of my entire career has been working for non-profits, I could only think of business ideas such as, “I wish there was something that would get my kids ready for school in five minutes when I tell them they have five minutes to get ready. Like a giant claw.” This business plan issue had been plaguing me for weeks, so this past week, I asked Troy and Christian (who have extensive tech and business experience) for help and BAM! less than a day later, they came up with something usable, unique, and better than anything I’d come up with after almost a month of trying to figure it out on my own. Since I’m quite a bit older than my protagonist, I asked Paul if he had any insights into my protagonist’s environment. He came up with some gems. And of course, over all of us presides Scott, who in addition to his guidance and insights, just sent me a disturbing article about an incident in a place similar to my story setting that I’m sure I can use somehow (Yes, I know I’m being very vague).

So even though this Dispatch doesn’t really have anything to do with the Four Themelines assignment we had this week, I’ve been thinking about this issue of asking for help all this week. I don’t think it ever hurts, and it always, ALWAYS helps.

Waka’s observations speak to two valuable aspects of The Quest.

First, it is a Writers Group. That is a select set of writers, all with a common goal — to pound out a solid first draft — and each committed to helping each other in the process. This is something you can do and should do, as long as the other writers in your group are both knowledgeable and in sync with your writer’s personality.

Second, it is a Workshop. This involves a Writers Group, but one with a specific time frame. In this case 24 weeks. There is something about a set of writers involved in a workshop environment with deadlines that can create amazing insights.

I’ve probably run 100 or more writing workshops in my time, online and on-site, 4 days, 1 week, 6 weeks, 10 weeks, up to 24 weeks, and I’ve seen this phenomenon over and over and over again. There’s something about a like-minded, focused set of writers working on each others’ stories that can generate incredible energy and remarkable discoveries.

I experienced this again just last week in Las Vegas for the Black List Screenwriters Lab. On Wednesday, I moderated three 2-hour sessions, the first in which I asked the writers to reflect on five questions about their current script draft as well as their goals, then went through each of their answers individually and as a group. In the afternoon, we spent about 40 minutes on each of their stories. And I think it’s safe to say those sessions were hugely successful, much of what those writers took away from the week emerging in that workshop environment.

It’s experiences like that which led me to create the very first Quest 4-Day Writing Workshop which I’ll running next week in Santa Monica. We have a great group of writers, each with an interesting story concept, each with an intriguing creative background. I am confident we, as a group, will conjure up some creative magic and key insights on each of their projects.

Just like Waka has discovered with The Quest: Writers helping writers. There’s something very special — and inspiring — about that.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

October 5th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka muses about story prep… and doughnuts:

As I hoped, I’m feeling back on track this week. I’m continuing to brainstorm since I don’t feel like I’ve “broken” my story quite yet. And here and there, I’m finding some fascinating information, my fellow Questers are giving me great suggestions, and I really feel like this intensive focus on prep and theory are helping me develop a story I can be proud of. I think when we write by ourselves (at least for me), it’s easy to shy away from the challenging stuff. With the Questers though, we’ve been honing in on areas that need work, characters whose motives might not make sense, untangling knots, challenging developments, offering options. It’s an environment in which I feel we are as excited about helping another Quester out as much as we are at finding something that works for our own stories. It’s a strange feeling – we haven’t so much as typed “FADE IN” and I feel like everyone’s stories have already transformed so much. If this is the first half, I can’t wait to see what the second half brings! Hopefully doughnuts. Scratch that. Doughnuts are my kryptonite.

Interesting that Waka mentions doughnuts. I’ve just wrapped up a week working with six writers selected for the first Black List Screenwriters Lab in Las Vegas, mentored by Brian Koppelman, Jenny Lumet, Billy Ray, Kiwi Smith and myself, and workshop sessions there involved a variety of food items to help fuel the process. Healthy stuff like apples and granola to the more ‘traditional’ items one might expect, chips and candy.

That got me thinking about the connection between writing and snacks. I remember reading an interview with a writer — Neil Simon perhaps? — in which he said he used food as a device to motivate him to write. When I finish this scene, I can have some Fritos. Seems silly, right? But I’ll bet each of us can relate, using some sort of external ‘prize’ to help push us along when pounding out pages, whether it’s M&M’s, a cappuccino or a Jack Daniels on the rocks.

My go-to favorite is pretzels, just a little something to munch on every couple of hours.

How about you? What are your favorite writing snacks? Do you use them to motivate you? Or are they just fuel for the process?

In any event, I’ve got these virtual doughnuts to give to Waka when she finishes her actual first draft:

Next week: More Dispatches From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

September 25th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka shares an experience all writers have… when a story kicks your butt:

This week kicked my butt. It started out well enough. Normally, as soon as our next assignment is posted, I access it right away and get started. So, I downloaded the lecture and writing exercise, read it, uttered a quiet expletive to myself… and then promptly set it aside. I kept on calling the Master Brainstorming List the Monster Brainstorming List to myself. Occasionally, I’d peek back at it. And then set it aside. This was kinda weird for me. I don’t usually procrastinate because I know myself, and I know I don’t work all that well under stress. For me, stress tends to freeze up any sort of creative juices I have. I like to leisurely start a project, think about it, write a little, come back to it, improve a little… Generally, this routine gets me to where I like to be by the time deadline time rolls around.

On Tuesday, I decided that Wednesday morning (er… our deadline day for this assignment) would be the day I’d work on the Monster Brainstorming List. Tuesday after dinner, however, we had… how shall I put it? A “boys will be boys” type of incident which landed us in the ER for five hours. My little guy is fine, but of course, at the time I spent the bulk of my time brainstorming everything that could possibly go wrong. Even though the doctor told me I could send him to school the next day, I didn’t and hovered over him instead. Happily, he watched Harry Potter in the morning and I sat next to him with my laptop, but I wasn’t exactly inspired. Later, we went on a trip to Krispy Kreme to 1. spoil my boys 2. provide me with much needed creative fuel. Plus, day job duties were calling and I happily tended to those first because remember? My work shall not suffer!

Finally, a couple hours before the deadline that evening, I pounded out what I could. It’s hard to cue inspiration, but I plugged along and lo and behold, a couple of nuggets (whether they’re chicken or gold remains to be seen) were unearthed. Although I wasn’t exactly pleased with my brainstorm, I realize that sometimes you just gotta say “uncle!” and what you have is what you have. Fresh start this week… and a smarter approach!

Yes, sometimes our stories kick us in the arse, slap us in the face, and slug us in the stomach. And they say writing isn’t a contact sport! On the contrary, when you go into the story, we need to be prepared for the fisticuffs to come. For the only way to find the story is to work at it. And that work can beat you up.

But like our Protagonists, we need to rise up to meet the challenge. One of the best ways to do that is go at it every day: prep-writing, page-writing, re-writing, each day you do the work.

Some days your story may kick your butt. But if you do the work, day after day, eventually you will kick its butt.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

September 18th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka talks about the upsides and downsides of becoming attached to characters:

About two years ago, I was introduced to a producer through a contact I made at a writing conference. Said producer liked my writing and was interested in the possibility of me doing a rewrite for WGA minimum (not tremendously big bucks, but a good deal more than the $50 and free seafood dinner I recently received for a 3rd place finish in a local writing contest. After buying my husband his dinner- $45 – and paying the babysitter $50, this contest success only left me $45 in the hole. So yes, WGA minimum excited me. Especially since I’m not even a member of the WGA. And yes, I digress). I couldn’t believe it – here was my chance to finally “break in.” After the first couple Skype calls, the team of men (incidentally, the job was to rewrite a script to make it into something women would like more) asked me to come up with some character outlines and a way I thought I would take the script. That weekend, I went to town. Although I wasn’t a big fan of the initial script, I thought and thought and thought and thought, then pounded out character outlines and 17 pages of the direction I’d take the script with these new/revised characters. I turned it in and had another conference call.  They seemed happy at first with my material, but then I knew there were some issues when one of the guys asked me, “But where is the humor?” Another person mentioned that everything new I had written was good, but when I incorporated aspects of the previous drafts, I seemed “constrained by the previous material.” Even so, I knew I was one of three final writers they were talking to and at the end of the third call, it seemed promising. Very promising. But then one of them asked me something akin to “if we asked you to be freer and even more imaginative than what you’ve already given us, would you feel confident doing so?”

And this is when something very stupid happened.

I did not project confidence. (After all, I wasn’t confident). I instead sat on this question for a day, and wrote a page-long response about why not everything should be thrown out of the first two drafts, that there was some good stuff there, the bones were something I could use… You see, the problem was that I had already gotten attached to the characters.

Needless to say, I did not get that rewrite gig.

Now that I’m working on another screenplay through the Quest, and approaching it in a manner I’ve never tried before, I find myself trying to be wiser about the process. I think everyone who writes a screenplay gets attached, whether it’s to the plot, the setting…  in my case, it’s the characters. You see, the magic for me is when I’m writing and instead of me writing their words, I merely transcribe what my characters say to me. Sometimes, there’s a “Don’t know where that came from… but I like it!” type of moment. For many writers, I know you’d agree – it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

And so with this character-based approach, as you can imagine, I am attached, once again, to my characters. Like I mentioned in a previous Dispatch, there has to be a reason why you feel a connection to a character, what in his or her story resonates with you. In order to write my characters, I have to understand them. And in order to understand them, I have to invest a lot of myself in them.

But I also understand, not only do I need to be open, but I need to be ready to “kill my darlings” so to speak.

This is a scary prospect. It’s like breaking up with someone you enjoy being with, but maybe isn’t ultimately the right person for you. It’s leaving a B-minus job in hopes of finding something that’s at least an “A” (but what if you end up with a “D”?). When I start to feel panick-y about this prospect, I take a deep breath, think about past mistakes, and tell myself, “This good character I have, if I’m open, can show me how she can be great. If I eliminate this character, then maybe there’s more room for this one to grow.” In essence, “When one door closes, another one opens.” (or is it “there’s more than one fish in the sea?”) I don’t know. I’m actually procrastinating as we speak. Scott just gave us a HUGE brainstorm list and my characters are huddled in the back of my head, dreading their boot camp of development. Wish me (them) luck. If they make it through, you’ll see them on the page.

This issue of writers getting attached to their stories and specific narrative elements is an ongoing thing. On the one hand, we hope we conjure up a story so compelling that we do feel attached to it, committed to it, passionate about it. On the other hand, there is a long path from a script becoming a movie and what may exist so well in script form may not necessarily translate to the screen.

This came up in my interview with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Webber who followed up (500) Days of Summer with their adaptation of the novel The Spectacular Now. Before the movie’s released, I read the script and discussed with Scott and Michael. Here is a key excerpt:

Scott M:  Speaking of set-ups and payoffs [in The Spectacular Now], let me jump to another one. The last line in the script I read – “Your forgot your coat” — evoked memories of one of my favorite movies, “The Apartment,” and the last line there, “Shut up and deal.” Is that still in the movie, where he shows up at the campus with the coat?

Michael:  Scott and I both love “The Apartment.” That’s another movie that was a touchstone for us and our friendship and our collaboration. That movie is just perfect.

Scott M:  I agree.

Michael:  Unfortunately that last line from the script is not in the movie anymore.

Scott M:  Really?

Michael:  It’s funny, what you have to sacrifice to get a movie made. The baby steps of a career are really interesting, because first, you want to get a job, get hired for anything. Then you want to start to get hired for things you care about more. Then you want to get hired to write something that is definitely going to get made. And so on and so forth‑‑there’s kind of these little…you’re in the next club. The sacrifice needed to get the movie made‑‑we’re like, “We will do anything to get this movie made,” and unfortunately, sometimes things you really love have to be thrown overboard. I’m sure there are other writers, I don’t know, who throw fits or whatever, but at the end of the day, for us, really, the most important thing is getting the movie made.

That dichotomy — working so hard to make a script right, yet willing to sacrifice elements in order to get the movie produced — is, I think, pretty standard among most screenwriters.

So Waka, please understand there is a whole community of working screenwriters who sympathize with you and understand the challenge. Of course, there’s a whole other part of the conundrum: How to know what to cut and what to keep? Let’s save that for another discussion.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

September 11th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka shares lessons she’s learned about the limits of time… and a script reader’s patience:

I once had a professor who told us a story regarding his insecurities as a freshman at a prestigious Ivy League university. To succeed, he was convinced that he needed to make more out of his time than anyone else. So, quite literally, he made the most of his time. He systematically determined how much time he wasted by not studying, by doing things such as 1. showering, 2. walking across campus, and (this is my favorite) 3. Chewing his food. He determined that he’d be able to get a leg up by 1. reviewing his lessons in his head while showering 2. studying vocabulary for his foreign language classes while walking across campus and 3. examining his lecture notes while chewing. It became a kind of game for him to think of ways to decrease his time wasted (by waste, meaning not studying) and he said he was able to get it down to 19 minutes total (sleeping was necessary and therefore didn’t count). I’m a little embarrassed to confess, this is the only information I remember from his class.

As a parent who works and writes, my professor’s anecdote about making the most of time has come to mind often. It emphasizes to me the importance of time and how one uses it. Screenwriting is a medium, I believe, in which we as writers also must be extremely conscious of time. First, there’s the page count. One executive once told me, “When I have to read a script over 100 pages, I want to shoot myself.” She might have been a little on the extreme side, but it’s a point I’ve heard more than once. And then there’s everything we need to accomplish in 100 (or so) pages. We can’t, as my professor noted, just shower, walk, or chew without something else going on (besides, a scene about chewing would be pretty darn boring). As Christian mentioned in one of his earlier Dispatches, we are the gods of our story universe and we have the ability to control time, make it faster, slower, weeks pass in a page (montage) go back in time (flashback), offer a glimpse into the future (flash forward). I must admit, I’m not comfortable with all these techniques, but it’s exciting to learn and to experiment outside of one’s comfort zone.

Speaking of time, how is it possible that 8 weeks of our Quest have passed by already? It feels like a very short time (fun!), but also a long time (want to get into pages!) But, trusting the process…

My wife was a political science major at Cal. It was through her I learned about zero-sum game. Per Wikipedia:

In game theory and economic theory, a zero-sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which a participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participant(s). If the total gains of the participants are added up, and the total losses are subtracted, they will sum to zero. Thus cutting a cake, where taking a larger piece reduces the amount of cake available for others, is a zero-sum game if all participants value each unit of cake equally

Setting aside the finer points of the theory, I was reminded of it by Waka’s comment via a studio exec: “When I have to read a script over 100 pages, I want to shoot myself.”

This is a very real phenomenon. As noted previously, when someone tasked with reading a script opens it up, just about the first thing they do is flip to the back to see how long it is – to determine if they love you (100 pages or less) or hate you (120 pages or more).

So let’s say we have 100 pages. That’s the totality of time (page count) we have with a script reader, the limit of their patience with you and your story. That means we have to make every single page count.

Every single page that works is a plus.
Every single page that doesn’t work is a minus.

Handling time in a script is a critical component to how pages work. If we achieve a nice clip to our pace and can sustain a rhythm, the time of the script universe flowing smoothly, that’s a plus. If our pages come off as episodic, that’s a minus.

Every time jump you make in your script, even if it’s a matter of minutes in story time, is an opportunity to create a seamless transition which sustain a reader’s interest and keeps them turning pages… or a ragged one which causes them to step outside your story universe and wonder why the plot went there, what the narrative logic of the jump was, and basically disengage from a direct experience of your story to starting to think about your story. That is not your goal. Rather you want to pull the reader into your story universe and keep them there.

I don’t particularly like the idea of zero-sum game. I especially don’t enjoy it when I realize my own life has a time limit because 24 hours per day is not nearly long enough for me to do what I want and need to do. But it is a reality both in life… and in the scripts we write.

So make each day count. And make each page count.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

September 5th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka finds relevance to the concept of theme in an ice cream cone:

A lot of birthday parties I’ve attended recently (kids’ parties, of course) have had themes. Back when I was a kid, the theme of the party was 1. Presents 2. Cake. Nowadays, parties are fancier. For instance, one might have a princess-themed party. Or a pirate-themed party. Plates, napkins, cake decorations, party favors, all fitting the theme. One of my best friends from college threw the most elaborate theme-oriented party I’ve ever seen for her 3-year-old daughter. It was an ice cream theme and boy, did she carry it through. Cupcakes baked into ice cream cones (cake looks like ice cream). An ice cream cone game in which kids raced to scoop pom-poms into ice cream cones. Ice cream cone-shaped piñata. Ice cream bowls shaped like waffle cones in which kids scooped their own ice cream, created their own ice cream sundaes and ate with spoons shaped like ice cream cones (ice cream theme within a theme within a theme). Ice cream cone-shaped bubble wands, with the bubble solution smelling like vanilla or chocolate, you guessed it – ice cream. Toys shaped like ice cream cones but that were actually like little weapons. (I like how in the advertisement, it mentions it’s “fun for the whole family!” Yes, fun for the kid launching the ice cream cone. Not so much fun for the receiving eyeball).

When we started studying Theme this week, I thought about my friend’s party. Now that’s a theme, I thought. In terms of writing, I’ve always kept the concept of “theme” in mind, basically as a kind of “What is it that I want to say with this story?” Last week, when we discussed each scene having a theme, I was like… what?? It’s difficult enough having a coherent theme for a screenplay, but for each scene? And this week, we discussed themes from all sorts of angles, and, just as I thought “Wow, I didn’t realize there were so many different ways to incorporate an ice cream theme into a party,” this week, I thought, “I had no idea there were so many ways to incorporate theme(s) into a screenplay.” For instance, I had always been wary of multiple themes because I worried about how they might muddle the central theme. This week, we had an exercise in which we brainstormed as many themes as we could think of that could apply to our stories. For me, this was very freeing, a kind of letting go of certain ideas I’ve had about writing. In addition, I had never thought of theme as a talisman. In one of our exercises, we were instructed to find a sort of talisman that could serve as a theme in our stories. I didn’t have one, so I made one up for the purpose of the exercise and… I think it works! In summary, I think this week was a big one for me. A kind of fuzzy ice cream projectile to the eyeball kind of wake up call. But in a good way!

There you go: Ice cream projectile as a talisman, a physical object with a symbolic meaning. It’s not a dessert item, it’s a weapon. Or in this case, a wake up call. And right there, we are dealing with thematic content.

Wait a minute, Scott. You’re saying an ice cream cone can carry some significant thematic weight? C’mon, dude! It’s a freakin’ ice cream cone, right?

Friends, we need to move beyond the shackles of “theme as premise” or “theme as the moral of the story.” That’s all well and good, but theme can be so much more, like the wonderful set-up and payoff of an ice cream cone in the movie Up, serving as the emotional touch point of the story’s Denouement…

Or a wake up call to a screenwriter.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

August 26th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka compares writing to running a half-marathon:

For this week’s Dispatch, I’ve decided to jump on the sports analogy bandwagon with Paul and Troy and discuss how a recent half-marathon I ran parallels the trials and tribulations of an everyday screenwriter (while incorporating concepts from this week’s lecture on “Scene”)

Beginning: Before having kids, I used to race a lot. I wasn’t particularly fast, but I’d still race, and it was a pursuit I enjoyed quite a bit. Pregnancies, C-sections, and babies resulted in an almost decade-long hiatus from competition. This year, though, my sister-in-law (and former running partner) suggested we try a half-marathon. Although I was a little nervous about the prospect, I agreed. She let me choose which race, and I let my lazy, comfort-loving side rule in this decision. Race at 6:00 AM, are you crazy? No way I’m waking up that early. Race in April? April in Portland can be cold and rainy. In July? Hmm. The timing is good, but it could be too hot. A race in July along a shady trail starting at 8:30? That’s the one! Little did I know, in my effort to sleep in and sweat as little as possible, I chose a race with some of the most difficult terrain I’d ever run on and a 320-foot elevation gain in 0.6 miles, followed by another elevation gain of 300 feet in less than 1 mile. It was only after paying the registration fee that I realized this race was going to be a lot harder than I anticipated.

When I began screenwriting, I also had no idea I was getting into. Do any of us? I don’t think you really can know until once you’re in it. I took a five-week class, received some encouragement from the instructor and thought I was all set. I gave myself five years to “make it.” Let’s just say it’s been more than five years, and my journey has been a lot like a 320-foot elevation gain in 0.6 miles.

Middle: The morning of my race, my 5 year-old asked me, “Mommy, are you gonna win?” I laughed. I hated to burst his bubble, but I told him the only way I was going to win was if all the people faster than me ran off a cliff. This image made him laugh (and I could tell he was actually giving this option some thought). He then asked me, “Are you sure you’re not going to win?” I could see in his eyes he really wanted me to give him something he could root for so I told him, “Well, the big thing is I’d like to finish. And not walk at all.” A fire lit up in his eyes and he yelled, “Don’t walk, Mama! Don’t walk EVER!” My oldest told me, “Just don’t die.”

During races longer than 10K, you’ll often find yourself trading places with the same people for a good portion of the run. During this race, it was a tall guy with his hair in a bun, and a woman in a hot pink running skirt. At about mile 5, for the first time in years, I felt my competitive running instincts kick in and I started to trash-talk them in my head: “Hey Guy-with-a-bun, think you can beat me? No guy with a bun is gonna beat me! Hey Pink-mini-skirt-lady, no way I’m gonna let you pass me. Who runs in a skirt? Omigod, are you wearing makeup? This is a half-marathon lady, not 15 minutes on the elliptical while you wait to get hit on!” A funny thing happened, though, each time I’d start to worry about guy-with-a-bun and pink-mini-skirt-lady, I would trip. The trail was riddled with rocks, gravel, and errant tree roots. Face-planting was a serious concern of mine heading into this race. When I forced myself to stop worrying about these two runners, whaddaya know, I found my footing.

In my writing, I’ve also had a tendency to worry too much about other people. First, there’s the concern about what other people in the industry are doing in relation to your project. For instance, Social Network came out right about the same time I was pitching Unfriended. The TV series Up All Night came out when I was trying to pitch Afterbirth.  And this week, a fellow Quester alerted me to the fact that a project with a similar (but not the same, thank goodness) premise sold after a bidding war.

Then, there’s the worry about how other writers are faring. I have a very good friend who started writing screenplays about two years ago. She doesn’t particularly like movies and TV even less, but something about the medium intrigued her. I helped her start out by giving her my extra copy of Save the Cat. She checked out books on formatting from the library. At the time, she had read only two scripts in her life: one of mine and Pulp Fiction. Then, she got out some yellow legal paper and wrote her first screenplay freehand. She typed it up in Word, let only her teenage daughter read it for feedback, submitted it to the Nicholl and talked about how awesome it was going to be when (not if) we became finalists. I didn’t have the heart to tell her, “Aw sweetie, nobody wins the Nicholl.” And I thought to myself, this is also a necessary step in a screenwriter’s journey. Crushing Disappointment. Lo and behold, she was a quarterfinalist.

I wish I was a better person and could say I was happy. I was not. I was so jealous. I wallowed. I couldn’t write. I was depressed. Mired in top 20%, 15%, and 2 positive reads, me with my FinalDraft software and years of writing experience, I. Was. Bummed. At some point, though, I told myself to snap out of it. Her writing didn’t affect mine. Her success didn’t affect mine. I reminded myself, the best cure for the writing blues is TO WRITE. And that’s what I did. Other projects, other people – sure, it’s good to be aware, but if you focus on them and not your writing, you will trip. I firmly believe if you put your head down and focus on your writing, you’ll find your footing.

End: Toward the end of the race, I was just ready to be done. I had no idea where Guy-with-a-Bun or Pink-skirt-lady were and I didn’t care. About 2 miles to go, I felt my right calf start to ball up in a painful knot. No, no, no, no, I thought, I just want to finish. I knew my husband and my boys would be waiting for me at the end, and I wanted them to see me run across that finish line, not hobble. I heard cheers. The Finish Line. I sprinted. I saw my boys. Smiled. Finished. No walking.

Unlike my race, I don’t know when my writing journey will end. The Quest has been a huge source of information, support, and encouragement. A kind of Gatorade energy chew at mile 6? 10? 12.5?

A week ago, I found out the results from the race and I was shocked. Time wise, it had been my slowest half-marathon ever, this I knew right after the race. However, I didn’t know I placed 5th in my age group. Not quite winning, and a whole lot better than dying, but two more spots and I would have placed (for my age group, just keeping it real). My sister-in-law told me, “The secret for us is to keep from falling apart slower than everyone else.”

With my writing, I think this is also something I should keep in mind. Sure, there are those kids who sell their first script right before graduation. There’s the person whose best friend is Director of Development at [insert Big Studio name here] and their script sells in the mid-six figures. I acknowledge that’s not the path my writing will take. But, if I continue to train/learn, and fall apart more slowly than everyone else, one of these days, you’ll see me, maybe between 80-85 years old, and medal (Oscar? Razzie?) in hand (for my age group).

Scene Type: Action Scene

Structural Goal: Running a race

Emotional Goal: Prove I can still do this

Theme: Never give up

I’m a runner. Well, at my age definitely more of a jogger. And like Waka, I’ve done an off-road half-marathon in Death Valley no less. So I can relate to this metaphor in a big way.

Writing is like running. Not a sprint. Not middle distance. But the long stuff. Half-marathons. Marathons. Ultra-marathons. Every story is a slog, grinding our way through character development, brainstorming, plotting, writing, rewriting.

If we’re outside looking in, there’s no time pressure per se… unless you consider the fact that everyone else is writing a screenplay [it sure seems that way] and one of them could beat you to the punch with your million dollar spec idea.

And if you are on the inside, a working screenwriter, everyone from your reps to producers to execs want your script yesterday.

Which is to say even if we are in effect running a marathon when we write a story, like Waka, we cannot walk. No, we have to keep running, moving forward, making progress, always putting one foot after the other toward FADE OUT.

Moreover we’re always learning, never totally nailing the craft, so again a marathon, our writing career a long-term prospect.

But perhaps the most salient point from Waka’s dispatch is Guy-with-a-bun and Pink-skirt-lady. We can get caught up in who sold what, who’s writing what, the whole comparison game, but that is a 100 yard dash toward creative destruction.

As Waka suggests, we need to run our own race with each story we tell.

I am reminded of this verse (2 Timothy 4:7) attributed to Paul:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

If we can honestly say that about each story we complete, then that would have been a marathon worth running.

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.

 

Dispatch From The Quest: Waka Brown

August 19th, 2013 by

Over the course of the 24 weeks I am working with the writers in The Quest, each will write a weekly dispatch to share with the GITS community. There are several reasons for doing this, the main one educational: Hopefully you will learn something of value for your own understanding of the craft from the experiences of the Questers. I should also add they are a great group of people, so I expect you will enjoy getting to know them.

Today: Waka goes searching for subtext… on the home front:

This week in the Quest, we’ve been studying dialogue. I love writing dialogue, I love the witty back and forth between characters, the banter. However, as Troy mentioned in his previous dispatch, the Quest has been an “I knew that… or did I?” type of experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the lecture on subtext. I’ve written many a scene in which there is subtext, but in retrospect, a lot of the subtext has come from rewriting. First, I’ll write the scene, realize the dialogue is too “on the nose” and then rework so there’s more subtlety and nuance. Since one of our exercises this week is to write a scene with subtext, I knew I’d have to start early to have anything presentable by the end of the week.

To this end, I decided to listen for subtext in our everyday interactions, and since most of my waking hours are spent with my children, I started with them. I learned pretty quickly, there is very little subtext when speaking with a 4 year-old.

My 4 y.o.: “I want a cookie.” (Subtext: I want a cookie)

However, advancing a little in age, even at 5 there is more subtext in his language.

My. 5 y.o.: “Mommy, Leo said ‘poop.’” (Subtext: Leo said “poop” and I want you to punish him for this because nothing gives me as much pleasure as when my little brother gets in trouble.)

And a little more subtext with my 8 y.o.

My 8 y.o.: “Mommy, I’m being good, aren’t I?” (Subtext 1: Say yes, and I will hit you up for something like a playdate or that cookie you aren’t giving my brother. Subtext 2: You love me best.)

And boy, if you want subtext, just listen to how a married couple talks to each other. Let’s look at a recent conversation between my husband and myself:

Husband: Honey, have you seen my flash drive? (Subtext: Where did you hide my flash drive? You always hide everything.)

Me: No. (Subtext: Why would I hide your flash drive? And I don’t hide things. It’s called “cleaning up”)

Husband: It’s kind of black and about this size. (Subtext: I’m pretty sure you don’t know what a flash drive is. And I know you hid it someplace so I’m going to ask again to give you a chance to remember where)

Me. No. I checked the pockets before I did the laundry, too (Subtext: I’m not an idiot. I know what a flash drive looks like and I checked your pockets even though this is something you should be doing. And I only mentioned it because I know this is what you’re going to ask next)

Husband: Oh. (Subtext: I was going to ask about the laundry, but she beat me to it so I have nothing else to say)

10 minutes later:

Husband: I found it! (Subtext: I’m sorry I accused you in my head of hiding my flash drive.)

Me: Good! (Subtext: Apology accepted)

In many ways subtext is necessary to keep relationships and in a larger sense, society running smoothly. In writing, I feel like it is the tuba that comes in with an oom-PAH, oom-PAH on the 2 and 4 beat to balance out the flutes and clarinets. It’s not the highlight, but it makes the music more pleasant to listen to, just like subtext makes writing more interesting to read.

And yes, I do realize it’s possible my husband really just wanted to know if I had seen his flash drive.

UPDATE: So it’s been 3 days since I began writing this dispatch. For our “scene with subtext” exercise I started writing… and writing… and writing. Finally, about 10 pages later, I might have a scene with some subtext. Not clever subtext. Clunky subtext. Ugh. An “I knew that… or did I?” and “No, you didn’t!” week for me. But, going back to my 3 rules for the Quest – family suffered? No! Work suffered? No! Personal hygiene suffered? No… but I’ve eaten every cookie in the house, I’ve raided the kids’ candy bags, and really wish I had some Doritos or doughnuts now. But I never said anything about junk food! So I’m still good.

We hear and read a lot in the online screenwriting universe about the importance of writing dialogue with subtext which is all well and good. But how to go about writing it? That is a subject representing a whole corner of the web strewn with nothing but dust and tumbleweeds.

One thing we can do is look for it in our everyday lives – just like Waka did. I think she’s right: We use subtext in relationships, especially close ones all the time. So perhaps by becoming more attuned to our own employment of it, we can become more comfortable writing it in our scripts.

Subtext: Pay attention, people! There are screenwriting lessons all around us in our daily lives!

Tomorrow: Another Dispatch From The Quest.

About Waka: Kansan turned Californian turned Oregonian. Fan of Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, Richard Curtis, Tina Fey (who isn’t?), & I still use a $30 Tracfone @wakatb.