Monday, December 01, 2008

The Writing Week part 48 - Back On The Horse

Last week, I was both disappointed and encouraged (though more the latter) by a rejection I got from a management company. Sandwiched between then and now was Thanksgiving, the mother of all holidays, especially for starving artists. Not only did I trek back to Northern Virginia (OK traffic on Wednesday, living Hell yesterday) for food, friends, family, and firewater (lots and lots of firewater), but I had some time to think about what I wanted to focus on next. While I didn't do as much thinking as I would have liked, I did let the ideas roll around in my wine and whiskey addled head.

As a writer, overcoming a writing slump can be a timely endeavor. I have four ideas I'm sorting through right now. I have a very bare-boned outline for two of them (read: I know roughly the trajectory they might take). One idea is heavy on the concept, but light on any concept of execution. The last is pretty much just an idea inferred from a title. What I do know, though, is that it's time to start putting things on paper again. (And, consequently, time to send out query letters for my comic book style spec - thanks, League, for help on the logline last week!)

It's an interesting thing we aspiring writers face - the ability to keep writing in the face of any possible distractor: holidays, relationships, family, and (the BIGGEST) often disagreeable day jobs. How do you do it? What's your trick for not letting that slump go on too long, for making sure you get back on the horse in time to finish the race?

I've found, and I think Zombie would agree, at least recently, that working on more than one project at a time is a great way to keep your head above the water. It's quite easy to be reluctant to do this, after all, wouldn't that mean working on more than one project at a time?!?! Daunting, yes, sometimes. Personally, while I'm a big proponent of outlines, I also hate them. I find that they give me, without fail, at least one whole week of pure, unguarded hell before I make headway in them. After that walk through fire, the writing I do seems cheap and dirty. I know exactly what'll come next, who will say what, and where Character X kicks the bucket. Working on two new projects at the same time usually would mean working on two new outlines at the same time, and that's just no good.

The key, then, is to dust off one of those scripts you've put on the back burner while working on that devil's minion of an outline at the same time. I think that, at any given time, there are about 5 scripts I have gathering proverbial dust in the deep recesses of my computer. As long as I still have any attachment to them, it's worth taking them out for a walk, at least as a safety blanket while I struggle with the outline of death.

Then again, outlines and oldies, maybe they're just my way of getting back on the horse. Writers, what are yours?

Slumdog Millionaire - Worth Every Rupee

Slumdog Millionaire was my family's choice for this year's Thanksgiving movie-going experience, narrowly beating out Quantum of Solace and Australia. I haven't seen the Bond flick or the Aussie show, but after Slumdog I have no doubt in my mind that we made the right decision. Slumdog is a great film, heavy with unrelenting love, genuine joy, and truthful hardship.

Directed by Danny Boyle (Sunshine, Trainspotting), Slumdog Millionaire is the story of Jamal Malik, an Indian teen who is thrust into the national spotlight as he finds himself one question away from 20 million rupees on India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. Believing it impossible that a kid from the slums could have progressed so far on the show, police interrogate Jamal on suspicion of cheating. Over the course of the interrogation we are taken back through chapters in Jamal's turbulent life as he describes the experiences that enabled him to answer each question. In time the revelations show that he is not on the show for money, but for love.

Firstly, kudos to Danny Boyle for his direction. I normally don't get swept away by cinematography and camera work, and when it does happen it's usually because I'm looking at something that is undeniably beautiful, almost to the point where the director needs only to point the camera and film. What I love about Slumdog is that much of what we see is a harsh reality, void of much natural beauty, but through a very active and stylish camera, Boyle creates images and sequences that you don't want to turn away from. Briskly cut to a cool soundtrack supported by songs by M.I.A, some scenes will leave you content to sit back and watch the characters move through their world.

The slums of Mumbai make up much of the world of the film. For most of the movie Jamal navigates this world with his older brother, Salim. The boys, first introduced as 6-9 year olds, are on different paths from the start. Jamal is sensitive and caring, while Salim is tough, selfish, and a watchdog for the wellbeing of he and his brother. The brothers endure early hardships of orphanage, religious intolerance, and poverty with the companionship of fellow orphan, Latika. Jamal cares deeply for Latika, and although circumstances over the course of his life keep him separate from her, and eventually his brother, destiny ultimately reunites all three characters for the conclusion of their story.

Jamal's story covers three phases of his life in which all three main characters appear. We have the pleasure of watching three different actors for each character, and all get a fair amount of screen time. I wasn't too sure how I felt about the shifts at first, but looking back I was far too enamored by the performances, especially by the young actors, to be pulled out of the film. Although I have to say that much of the acting is done in Hindi, and I've rarely been able to single out an actor for a poor performance in a language I am not familiar with. But there's more to acting than delivering lines, and the kids do a great job.

My favorite part of Slumdog would have to be the structure of the story. If I tried to write the same story, I would live in constant fear that Jamal's life experiences and the structure of the game show would feel forced to the point where they seemed to sorely compliment one another in order to reach an end. It's a situation where a writer can make so many decisions that can make the script seem too convenient. Not that there isn't some level of convenience in the movie. There were a few moments where I questioned a character's motivation or Jamal's experiences in relation to one of the game show answers, but when I compared the margin of error to the execution of the story, I was very impressed with Simon Beaufoy's script and Vikas Swarup's story.

The film's balance of dramatic, love story, and comedic elements helps make it accessible to a wide audience. It's Indie, it's foreign, but nobody should knock on it for those reasons. I like mainstream material, but Slumdog Millionaire is one of the best movies I've seen this year. I find myself calling it India's City of God, and like City of God, Slumdog is more than worthy of a trip to the movie theatre and certainly worthy of a place on the dvd shelf.

Worth reading -- Raymond Chandler's Ten Commandments for the Detective Novel

Some words to live by, from the father of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler:
  • It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
  • It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
  • It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
  • It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
  • It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
  • It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
  • The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
  • It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
  • It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law....If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
  • It must be honest with the reader.