A Modern Nursery Rhyme

In honor of my kids going back to school and the hassle of getting ready in the morning, I just thought of this modern nursery rhyme.  (BTW, I don’t actually curse at my kids!)

One two, where’s your damn shoe?

Three four, don’t slam the door!

Five six, pick up your shit!

Seven eight, now we’re all late!

Nine ten, never again!

 

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R U A Writer? Quiz

1. When you first looked at the title of this quiz, you thought:

A.  This sounds like fun!

B.  Why the heck can’t you write out “Are You a Writer?”  A title is not a text message!

C.  Not another stupid quiz.

D.  All of the above.

2. Walking down the street, a great idea comes to you for a story.  Immediately you…

A. Are sidetracked by the need to rescue a neighborhood cat from a dog on the loose.

B. I don’t know.  I was distracted by the dangling participle.  Can you please repeat the question?

C.  I’ll give you a great idea.  Why don’t you get a life, instead of making up stupid quizzes?

D.  All of the above.

3. Its three in the morning, and your wide awake.  Than you start thinking about a character in a book you red, whom has broke all the rules with many interesting aspecks.  What do you do next?

A.  Begin crying while recalling this character.  The things he/she went through were so heartbreaking.

B.  That’s it!  This is ridiculous.  I’m not at all sure that I can proceed with this quiz, in light of the sheer number of horrific grammatical and spelling errors.

C.  Kick my significant other in the back.  I’m probably awake because of his/her god-awful snoring.

D.  All of the above.

4. Okay, seriously now, what do you think about this idea?  A woman facing a divorce heads back to school, only to find that it’s not as easy as she thought it would be.

A.  Oh, that sounds great!  Good for her!

B.  Well, I don’t know.  I don’t know anything about the character yet.  What are the her flaws?  What exactly are her obstacles and struggles?  What is the arc of this character?

C. Stupid.  Why have her go back to school?  What a waste of money.  She’s not going to be any better off finding a job in this economy.

D. All of the above.

5. Final question.  Think carefully.  Pesto or marinara?

A. Marinara, definitely.

B. Pesto sometimes.  Marinara sometimes.

C. Who cares?

D.  All of the above.

Answer Key

If you answered mostly A’s, then you are a perpetually positive person, but not necessarily a writer.  Sorry.  But you are definitely the first person a friend should call upon to pet sit.

If you answered mostly B’s, congratulations on making it through the quiz!  And congratulations on being a writer!

If you answered mostly C’s, please check that attitude at the door, mister mister.

If you answered mostly D’s, then I’m as confused as you are.

Happy Writing!

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Thank You, Professor Baldwin

I was recently reminiscing about one of the film classes I took as an undergraduate.  I still recall the very first short film assignment for the class.  The professor told us to create a 4-minute long, silent film.  We went to work in our teams, our creative juices flowing.  But only four minutes!  It seemed so tough to tell a story in such a short period of time.  Our professor didn’t inform us until later that our next step was to edit our completed film in half, down to only two minutes.  “How duplicitous of him!  Impossible!” we thought.  There seemed to be no way to trim it down.  Why, we had already worked so hard to structure our story within a mere four minutes.  Every, single frame we had filmed seemed absolutely essential.

With much difficulty, each team achieved a two-minute, edited version.  “Very good,” the professor told us all, “Only now, I want you to trim it in half again.  Edit your films down to one minute.”  We all sighed and rolled our eyes.  But the cuts were somehow easier to achieve the second time around.  Only the very simplest substance of the story could remain.

Each of us, deep down, felt our artistic aesthetic had suffered a bit with each cut.  It was a little difficult to objectively see that our own films had improved with the editing.  But I still remember watching every one else’s films impartially from one cut to the next.  The final, shortest versions were the best.  The cuts were quicker, the paces faster and more exciting.  Forced to extract the true essence of their films, each group of students had achieved a better result.

The lessons I learned from editing in that film class carry over to today, when I sit down to edit a screenplay.  I know that it will be all the better after some refining  I know that some of what I put on the page will be superfluous and unnecessary.  Sometimes it’s part of a scene; sometimes it’s an entire scene.  But with each trim, the shape of the movie becomes more distinct.  Sometimes I feel like a bonsai artist, snipping and sculpting a rough form into an appealing work of art.  The final result is beautiful in a new way and occasionally, quite different from the initial vision.

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Unspoken Goals

I just read a timely article about character development, Jeanne Veillette Bowerman’s “Balls of Steel: Therapy for Your Characters” in scriptmag.  I like how she says your charcters should be making different choices at the end than in the opening scenes.  She dares us to push our characters, calling on our own wounds to guide us.

My book club was discussing Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder last night, and several of us were left feeling a bit cheated.  We discussed character development and how the protagonist’s choices at the end didn’t seem to mesh with the set-up of her personality.  I think we failed to see the growth and change that should have definitely evolved after all the protagonist endured.

I believe Jeanne is correct that the meaning of the story is lost to the reader/ viewer if the characters aren’t pushed to make the difficult choices.  And I would venture to say it is not only the choices for the physical goals that count, but also the choices made for the underlying emotional goals.  We feel satisfied at the end when those unspoken goals are achieved.

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Hope Springs

Ah, Meryl.  You did it again.  Meryl Streep was superb as Kay in Hope Springs.  I saw it last night, and while the film was slow for me at points (a bit like an In Treatment episode), the subtext Meryl can give a scene with deft use of an awkward hand movement, a slight smile, or a voice tremor kept me riveted.  Meryl is funny too!  During the scene near the end where she spies the neighbor, “Carol with the Corgis” about whom her husband Arnold confessed a fantasy, Meryl’s physical gestures had the audience roaring with laughter.  Unfortunately the audience was laughing so much that the following funny line, “But three’s the limit,” went unheard.  Too bad.

One scene did fall completely flat for me, and that was the one in a bar where Kay discusses her problems with Karen the bartender, played by Elisabeth Shue.  Perhaps the scene was cut shorter than originally intended, because the humor felt forced.  I really admired screenwriter Vanessa Taylor’s writing in other scenes.  The dialogue was realistic and very spare, which allowed for the actors to carry the emotion of the scenes and involve the audience in the interpretation of their actions.  Just the mere positioning of the couple on the couch spoke to the level of their relationship.  When they progressed from being on opposite ends of the couch to being seated close, well, we knew without words that there was hope.

The love scenes were wonderful, even the awkward attempted-love scenes.  And the romantic scene when Kay and Arnold finally re-connect…beautifully done.  I certainly cried.  Upon leaving the theater, I heard an elderly woman exclaim loudly to a friend about how she abhorred the move and had absolutely no desire to watch old farts having sex.  But I think she missed the point.  The love scenes weren’t about sex, they were about love.  Refreshingly different from most romantic comedies out there.  I got that, and I think almost everyone would.  Kay and Arnold had re-connected even before they were able to be physically intimate again, but their love was fully renewed when they were able to connect physically.

Oh, and Steve Carell as Dr. Feld.  Can’t forget him.  Great comedic timing as always.  He was perfect for this role.  Gotta love Steve.  A thumbs up from me over Hope Springs.  Meryl Streep was amazing.

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Complex Characters

Writer/director Rodrigo Garcia is featured on the newest episode of KLRU’s On Story.  The interview comes from his presentation at the Austin Film Festival session, which I attended this past fall.  Into the video at 8:30 is one of my favorite recommendations from him, and in fact it was given in response to a question posed by yours truly.  So I feel like I contributed to this interview in some small way.  He says that you cannot have a character before you have a story, and that your story must include great conflicts.  Then as you write scenes, your character is either “well-suited or badly-suited to the conflicts.”  Thanks for your answer, Mr. Garcia.

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Fresh Me vs. Old Me

I was just listening to Jenna Milly of screenwritingu interview screenwriter Vanessa Taylor about Hope Springs, the new romantic comedy starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones.  It’s a pretty short interview.  I like Vanessa’s advice on writing a spec script when you’re starting out and trying to find your unique voice.  She says to write something personal, have faith in your own vision, and don’t try to make it a knock-off.  She advises  to stop worrying about what you imagine should go into a movie to make it commercial, and instead just let your own voice speak and tell the story.

When questioned about rewriting for Hope Springs, Vanessa said she was advised early on to dump more than half of her first 100 pages in order to let her own voice show.  So she boldly sat down to edit.  She would read until something seemed false, then get to work on the problem.

In my current editing, lots of things are jumping out at me now that I’m approaching the draft with fresh eyes.  It took me a while away from the script to see things in a new way.  Now when I spot these things, it seems like I argue with myself at first.

Fresh Me:  “Hmmm, that’s weird, seems off, awkward, doesn’t make sense.”

Old Me:    “Nah, it’s okay.  It’s fine.”

Fresh Me:  “Really, you think so?  Okay.  Wait, no.  Not okay!  It could be better.”

Old Me:     “How?”

Fresh Me:   “I’ll show you!”

Fresh Me has some really good ideas for punching things up and clarifying the scene descriptions this week.  As long as Old Me eases up, I’ll keep making good progress.

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Finding the Time

Often I only have a few minutes during the day when I can finagle the time to write. Having been a parent for a while, I’ve actually gained some skills in focusing despite distractions.  Heck, I can even keep writing for a while with the kids fussing and fighting nearby.  I’ve got plenty of crafty parenting-from-the-chair techniques.  Plus now that I have teens, my precious late nights are no longer my own and are subject to interruption as well.  I really have to be good at dealing with interruptions around here.  So I was glad to see this article about how our creativity is not necessarily harmed by interruptions.  I found it pretty interesting.

On a related note, I also like this recent Jenny Avery scriptmag post.  She says we only need to set aside 15 minutes a day, rather than long blocks of time, to write.  Dedication to daily practice is what’s most essential, according to her.  I’ll buy that.  I have to say that I have accomplished an amazing amount of writing work in this past year, using whatever blocks of time I have each day.  Some days it’s hours, some days it is only minutes.  But I definitely believe the consistency of writing each day is important.  And like Anne Lamott says, we can always find the time for what’s important to us.  So if writing is important, then there’s a way to find the time.

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Introductions

I keep editing the brief introduction to my main character in the comedy feature I’m working on.  I can’t stop making changes.  I’ve got to pull it together, really.  I must make a final decision.  I just feel like I’m introducing her to the world in that first scene, and I want to get it right.  Like when you’re at a party, and you want to make just the right impression.

What are her most essential features?  What is her opening action?  What small but interesting details can I share about her that will tell much about who she is?  I was working on how to very briefly describe the room she’s in.  I’ve got that.  Then I began to think about what item of clothing she wears that I need to show.  Figured that one out.  And for now, “a serious expression strains her soft features.”  Before that,  I said that her “soft features reflect a mature nature.”  The first time around, she was “fresh-faced, but serious.”  But then I decided she was just about to wipe off makeup, so that’s no good.

Aaack!  I’m having trouble distilling this character’s personality at the start into a few words.  She changes quite a bit throughout the story too, and I have to distinguish who she is at the beginning versus at the end.   Speaking of introductions, this screenplay is on the schedule in two months for a table read with my screenwriters’ group.  I am so excited!  I will be introducing the script in its entirety.   So I’d better get this all ironed out.  Then I can stop thinking about what my character will wear and move on to the important decision of what I myself should wear — to the table read.

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Shut up, Shut up, Shut up

SPOILER ALERT for Breaking Bad, Season 5!

So I am often a few days late catching up on Breaking Bad, but I know some people are a season or two behind, so I don’t want to spoil it for any one.  But on the “Hazard Pay” (episode 3) of Season 5, the scene that stayed with me the most was when Skyler has a mini-break down in the car wash office with her sister Marie.  Marie is pushing Skyler’s buttons with her incessant advice and commentary.  Skyler would have pushed back under normal circumstances, but we can see Skyler becoming increasingly frantic as Marie blathers on, until finally Skyler cracks and screams, “Shut up!”  Then she repeats herself, “Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up!” for a while, more than what I’ve typed.  No fancy dialogue, no on-the-nose exposition about what’s going on in her life or how Marie just doesn’t get it.  Just a freak out with one repeated line.  And it was realistic.  Isn’t that how we act when we are absolutely out of our heads with emotion, and not thinking straight?  I loved it.

It reminded me of hearing Buck Henry say that for the final scene of The Graduate, the bus ride, he had initially written one line of dialogue, some obvious comment.  But when it was taken out and there was no dialogue at all between Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross, the powerful scene really took shape.  Would we all remember the uncomfortable, “what now?” feeling of that scene so clearly if there had been dialogue?  I personally felt as if I were actually sitting there on the back of that bus when I saw the movie.  For more about Buck Henry and The Graduate, here’s the transcript of an interview .

So my point of the day, I guess, is to remember to tell myself, “Shut up!” when I am about to write elaborate dialogue for an emotional scene.  Sometimes simpler is better.

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