Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 251 - A Four and a Half Hour Notes Session

Yesterday was a first for me. My writing partner, W.A., and I sat down to meet about the first draft of our sci-fi spec. Before the Thanksgiving holiday, I turned in a 130 page draft to him, and yesterday was our first chance to really go into it in real detail together. What resulted was a four and a half hour meeting in which we talked mostly about character detail, goals, and tone. That is the longest script meeting I have ever had, probably by three or four times. 

Never before have I sat down for such a dedicated amount of time to talk about a script at both the macro and micro levels. It was one hell of a fruitful meeting. For one, W.A. and I identified the tonal inconsistencies that made the draft rocky. Actually, I should amend that a bit; we finally settled on a tone that we both felt was right for the script, and I will be able to make it consistent throughout the entire screenplay in my next draft. We'd fluctuated between adult action sci-fi (like CHILDREN OF MEN), and more family-oriented fare (JURASSIC PARK), but never wanted this to be a children's movie, despite having younger protagonists. In talking it out over the morning/afternoon, we nailed down the type of film we want it to be, which will inform all of the other notes that we have to address in round two.

Besides the tone, the nature of the protagonist's character is the meatiest element we needed to focus on. He's sort of a slacker, sort of a genius, sort of scared, sort of scarred, sort of way too many things. We came into the meeting with a question; who is he? What does he want and why is he the way he is? A lot of the solutions to that stem from the tonal decisions we made; after such a long sit-down, we both know this character a lot more than we did yesterday morning. Character can be one of the hardest things to get right. Your character has to be enjoyable to watch (even if he/she's not likable) and, ideally, has to have an arc that we can follow for 90 to 120 minutes. It can take multiple drafts to figure out what drives your protag - don't be alarmed or ashamed if that's the case. I did seven months of outlines before I wrote this draft, and it wasn't until our meeting that both W.A. and I were content that we had finally identified the person that is our story's hero. It takes time, patience, and sometimes seeing him or her on the page to get there. But it will happen. 

From that, followed the characters' goals - not just the protagonist's, but the antagonist's, as well. The antagonist's wants should be in direct conflict with the protagonist's, or should so mirror them that when one succeeds, the other inherently fails. By understanding our protagonist and his journey, we are better equipped to stack the deck (and the antagonist) against him.

W.A. has decades more industry experience than I do. In fact, though he probably would cringe at hearing it stated this way, he's been in the industry longer than I've been alive. This reason alone is why, despite some great script-work, the last half hour might have been one of the best parts of the meeting for me. As we were wrapping up, I asked him how he thought we'd proceed with the script when it was ready to be show around the industry. From there, we wound up talking about the business side of things, and he showed himself to be incredibly willing to share with and inform me about navigating Hollywood movie-making. He offered quips and insights and experiences; he foretold of things to come, should the movie get greenlit. And, maybe most valuable of all, he indicated his commitment to keeping me on board throughout the process. I am under no deception that the project is more mine than his; he's been working on it for years and brought me on to help. He wants to direct it. Granted, I've been a part of it for nine months now, almost ten, but in the end I know I defer to him. His comments, however, assured me that I will have a place in the future of this project, whatever happens with it, which is invaluable. Not that I expected him to drop me after it gets sold, mind you, but we all know that writers are all too often treated as expendable. W.A. is conscious of my time and effort on this project and doesn't want me to waste any of it. And at the end of the day, he expects me to remain a part of it. Let the learning process begin in earnest soon (with a sale after a couple more drafts, I hope). 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 250 - Flash Back to First Draft

The big news for my own writing this week is that I finished the first draft of my sci-fi spec! After about nine months of collaborating on this project with a writer/director/actor (whom I have dubbed W.A. here), we finally have a full draft to dig into. It's a bit of a doozie at 130 pages, but that's perfectly okay as far as first drafts go. And, W.A. is looking at it with the notion of potentially directing, so that gives us even less cause to worry about a long script at this point. We're going to go over the material page by page during what will probably be an epic meeting after Thanksgiving, but we have plans to touch base about the major elements next week before the holiday. Until then, both of us are giving ourselves some time apart from the script to let it simmer and enable us to come at it with fresher eyes when we do finally meet up.

However, I don't really want to focus on my own writing this week. Rather, I want to share with you something that happened, that reminded me of a lot of fundamentals - and my first days as a nascent writer. A friend of mine, someone I actually met abroad, wrote a script and asked me to give it a read. I was happy to. This is the first draft of a piece he's working on on spec - oddly, it has some startling thematic and circumstantial similarities to my project with W.A., but that's beside the point (for now). He asked me to weigh in with any thoughts I had, knowing that this is his first script.

What struck me first is how this script was so similar in myriad ways to many of my earliest efforts. Disclaimer before I say anything else, this is in no way meant to be a criticism of his work; these are purely observations. For one, a lot of first drafts are written in the passive voice. "Gunfire is seen coming from the house" and "he is sitting." It took me a long time to break the habit, and sometimes it's easiest to use the passive voice, but if you can find a more active way to say something, please do. "Gunfire erupts from the house" or "he straddles the chair" - not only are these more active sentences, but they paint a more exciting and vibrant picture of what's happening. They also enable you as a writer to expand the vocabulary of your script and engage the reader on a deeper level.

When I first began writing, I relied heavily on the use of "we" in my descriptive passages. "We hear glass crunching" or "we see them run through the park." As with passive, this is a method of writing that, if possible, you'll want to transition out of. "Glass CRUNCHES" or "they run through the park" are more exciting and more concise. Both of those are good things. 

Action is also tough to write. I used to be guilty of describing every punch. A five second fight would take up a half page or more, because I choreographed it down to the inch. "He takes one step and punches twice. Bill punches back - uppercut. Jim shoves him with both hands and trips him with his right leg. Bill gets back up and..." on it goes. It's fun and cool, but unless there's something pivotal about that right leg, it doesn't matter. "Bill and Jim wail on one another. It's a brutal, animalistic fight. Jim ultimately gets the upper hand, sending Bill to the ground with a kick and keeping him down with a solid punch." You get it, the reader gets it, and the fight choreographer has enough information to do his or her job freely. The same goes with rooms and sets. Unless it's vital that we see four chairs at the kitchen table in a house for five, we don't need to know how many the dining set can accommodate. Just say, "an elegant dining room" or something of the kind. 

All of the above tips and more go to the fact that, as a writer, you are that - a writer. As readers, we should have an idea of what you want us to see. If it's something routine, you don't need to go into every detail for us (most kitchen tables have four or six chairs, unless it's essential, don't tell us which). If something is atypical - your protag lives in a rondavel - describe it in a bit more detail. But don't get lost in telling us what color of blue the wall in the foyer is if your character runs through there in two steps and we never see it again. Your production team will involve designers and a director who will take care of that. Your focus, is the story, and that can get mired in the details if you're not careful. 

Jumping back to the similarities between that script and mine, I only want to say one thing. Reading other people's material is a great thing to do, provided they actually want your feedback, and not just your praise. However, it can also be risky. Especially the more established you get and more likely you are to have a sale, keep in mind that you never know how someone will react if they feel you're using their material or otherwise stealing from them. Granted, I first saw this script about a week ago, and I trust that the writer will understand that my project was in no way influenced by his, but you never know. The similarities are such that, if two years from now he went to the theater and saw my movie, he could cause quite the commotion by saying, "Zach stole my ideas, and I have the evidence of sending him a script to prove it." Sure, I have an email trail with W.A. that predates this writer's interaction with me by nine months, as well as daily email backups of the script and outlines I sent myself, but you can never be 100% certain who will do what. As they said at my high school, "verbum sap sat."

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Writing Week (Vol. 5) part 249 - Surviving Sandy

"I wonder if I should sleep in the living room," I thought to myself Sunday night. My bed is right under a window, and it hadn't occurred to me until my boss sent a cautionary email that being near exposed glass in the hurricane might not be the wisest idea. "Eh, the futon's not that comfortable," I dissuaded myself, "and I'm too tired to go collect blankets and pillows."

My gamble paid off - I was fortunate, and my windows all remained intact. In fact, my neighborhood in Astoria, Queens was quite lucky throughout the ordeal. Unbeknownst to me, I was near an evacuation zone, but I didn't lose power (just internet for a bit), and Netflix streaming helped my housemates and I pass the time in restless comfort. We ate. We watched. We ate. We watched. I broke the pattern to read and write. While much of New York City flooded, burned, or literally washed away, I plugged away at the sci-fi spec, spinning a long second act into a 70 page yarn that needs adjusting but doesn't have any obvious cuts yet.

As I mentioned before, the script is getting long. I submitted a 74 page first "half" to my writing partner a week ago, and this morning I sent him the first two acts. He got an email with a 104 page pdf. We both know that this draft is going to be long - maybe 130, 135. I don't want to start with edits now; it would just be counterproductive. I want to keep my momentum going, so I'm ignoring what I know to be a page count issue. Some stories demand long scripts - this just isn't one of them. Also, though, I know that I can't short-change Act Three to come in at the desired 120. I want to strip 5 pages from Act One and 10 from the first half of Two, but I'm not going to do a disservice to the script by trying to preemptively trim Act Three. My writing partner told me to keep going, and I'm certainly not going to argue with that. 

We've been in touch over the past week - when you are stranded and can't get to work, you feel guilty when you're not working on your scripts. He has notes, for sure - some tonal, others about character motivations - but we're setting those aside for the time being, too. Neither of us is displeased with the draft. More than that, we're also learning a lot about the story from my pages, what's working what isn't, and where we're falling short. Character motivations are still a little rocky, especially with the protagonist. But we're seeing that clearly now, and our game plan is to do a full, line by line edit/review after I send him the completed first draft. Only then will we really know where we've landed and what we need to focus on next. 

I know I was fortunate to have made it through Sandy the way I did. Friends of friends lost everything. My cousin lost his roof (literally). Even other Leaguers went without power or water for days. I'm grateful that I was able to get so much done during the storm, especially when I know so many artists and theatres that have lost or suspended everything. 

I hope all you writers out there who have been affected by Sandy - or whose families have been - are back up and running and writing at full speed.