Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Don't Step on the Ducks

Sometimes, ugly is a matter of perspective.

As I go through the final proofs on my Nicholl entry and try to still the volcanic nerves in my stomach while I pretend this has nothing to do with validation, I remind myself that readers are subjective human beings and perspective is like stepping on ducks --

Three women die together and go to heaven. Saint Peter greets them with, “We only have one rule: don’t step on the ducks!” They do their best but since there are ducks everywhere, the first woman steps on a duck anyway and Saint Peter chains her to the ugliest man she's even seen saying, “Your punishment for stepping on a duck is to spend eternity chained to this ugly man!” Eventually the second woman also steps on a duck and along comes St. Peter with another set of chains and another extremely ugly man.

The third woman is very, VERY careful where she steps. She manages to go months without stepping on any ducks, but one day Saint Peter chains her to the most handsome man she has ever seen. The ecstatic woman says, “I wonder what I did to deserve being chained to you for all of eternity?” The guy says, “I don’t know about you, but I stepped on a duck!”
Lucky gal. Poor guy.


But, how does Saint Peter choose an ugly person?

I taught at a women's conference in Wisconsin once and I gotta tell you, those dear women were hospitable, gracious, and friendly but they weren't what America considers attractive. During meals, they would shower me with compliments and ask me questions about caring for my figure and complexion. I had to avoid the few men around because they kept sniffing me, taking my picture, and trying to touch my hair. True story. Now fast forward to the land of movie stars. In California, I'm a man! Men don't even look at me. Well, okay, a few men DO look at me because they THINK I'm a man.


We writers find great comfort in fingering the subjectivity of readers as the orange cones blocking the threshold of our careers. But a lot of us actually do suck. And, my guess is that most of us aren't half the writers we think we are. Yes, there's a mirror hanging nearby and ouch, the pain from even typing those words shoots straight into my soul. But, subjectivity doesn't negate or invalidate a conclusion. It only means the conclusion had to be based on something and that something was subjectivity.

One of the most interesting lists of contest advice for writers I've seen has been posted various places but it originated on twoadverbs. com and is updated in this Christopher Lockhart post about how one reader actually culls his slushpile. The reader, identified only as Johnny Rude, gives nine non-apologetic rules for preparing your work for a contest. He doesn't read most of the screenplays he's given to judge. Seriously. Does NOT READ THEM. Why? Because he's not evaluating each screenplay's merits or giving feedback. He is comparing the 100 screenplays he's been given.

So, it's kind of like judging a beauty contest where all the contestants are screenplays. Before he even starts the talent portion of the competition, he flips through the pages and eliminates contestants with flaws that jump out at him. Dense narratives. Flowery dialogue. Formatting abuse. That sounds reasonably objective to me -- even though "how dense is too dense" and "how flowery is too flowery" are still subjective -- in an equal opportunity "you just wasted my time and your entry fee" sort of way.

Lockhart mentions a contest where he thought only half of the top ten screenplays belonged there but he didn't know if it was because the other entries were that bad or the process of selection was that flawed. I'm guessing both.

My own opinion is that all contest selection processes must be fundamentally flawed. They must be. I don't see how it's possible to create an equitable process out one that is inherently based on so many inequitable variables. Multitudes of screenplays are dealt out in different piles and sent out different doors on different days to different towns to different readers with different backgrounds and who are experiencing different hormone levels during different emotional states of their vastly different lives. No amount of screening or standardizing of scores can change somebody's predisposition for drama over comedy or their disdain for horror.

The process doesn't work.

And yet, it works.

It works because, as subjective as people are, sometimes ugly is just ugly. Maybe contests don't always get the "best" screenplay and sometimes a "better" one rises above a "best", but has the "worst" ever won? Be fair. Don't say "yes" unless you've read some of the juvenile crap that gets entered in contests alongside the well-written stuff. The worst doesn't win because the worst is the worst.

So, back to the the Nicholl.

I'm proofing, editing, reading and re-reading every single page over and over again because I'm not just entering the Nicholl this year. I want to win. But here's the thing. In my small circle of friends here in no-place, Texas, I'm a brilliant writer. Genius, even. But compared to screenwriters who advance in the Nicholl every year, I may be the writer you get chained to if you step on a duck.

That depends, of course, on whether you write in Wisconsin or California.



Ann Wesley Hardin said...

I loved this post! I'd be Nora Robert's duck fer sher. Yet here in my small town I'm a cEleb.

Not sure exactly how screenwriting contests work, but in romancelandia, there's "writing for contests" and "writing for publication". Surprisingly, the two approaches can be veddy different although there is overlap.

From what I've heard from insiders, most of the time, contest entries are more generic and sterile, devoid of anything that might offend an errant judge. Whereas the rules are much more malleable if you're targeting an editor directly. I wonder if it's the same for screenwriting?

Have you ever shopped your screenplay? Or are you focusing completely on the Nicholl?

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Two years ago and well into last year, several indy producers took a great deal of interest in one of my other screenplays. It's just too expensive to make. I made some contacts, one very good friend, and got and agent out of the experience but no options or sales. (the agent is on the wrong coast unless I start writing novels - which I suck at doing)

Since then, I've focused primarily on the Nicholl. I do have several other projects but they aren't ready to shop and honestly, for the past six months, the Nicholl has been my primary writing goal.

Just a few more days and I can focus on something other than the Nicholl...

E.C. Henry said...

You'll always be "Wisconsin" duck to me. Just because SOME people don't get it. Doesn't mean all the people don't get it.

Sure the inner process is a bit fustrating, but those are circumstances beyond your control. Your real focus should be writting cool stories -- isn't that what generated interest in the first place?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Nicholl entry = cool story. Same thing. It's just hard work to get it where it needs to be.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

I just looked at my comment and thought WTF? Thanks for not saying it outloud, MaryAn. LOL.

In my roundabout way I'm trying to ask: how important is authorial voice in screenplays? In novel writing, it trumps everything.

Before I spout any further wisdom I'd like to know how important it is to not over-edit and sterilize your voice in screenplays. Does voice matter alot? A little?

Thanks for being so patient with me. LOL. And you can say WTF outloud. I won't be offended.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

Oh! And I see you've noticed my cavemen...

MaryAn Batchellor said...

Yes. I noticed the cavemen. Oh. My. Gosh.

Your comment made sense to me so either we're both seriously messed up or -- well, never mind, we're probably both seriously messed up.

Voice - each screenwriter has a voice and I most certainly DID overedit it during the rewrite. I actually did a read-through and thought "what professor or nerd-ology wrote this boring thing?" Seriously, I had a friend who started to read it and it was so boring he couldn't finish it. That took some time to fix in the rewrite.

I have nothing to substantiate my unqualified and unprofessional opinion on the rest of this -- I don't think the author's voice trumps anything at all in screenwriting because the individual voices of the characters are so much more critical than the voice of the author.

BUT, in screenwriting, you should hear the author's voice only as you begin to read and then, once you're in the author's head, his voice should feel invisible because screenwriting is visual and you're in the film. You're not hearing anymore, not reading anymore, you're visualizing. (I talk a good talk but I have a lot of work to do in this area)

If the author jumps styles and/or voices, it takes the reader out of the film and back into the author's head (or out of it) and now it's just another herky jerky story forcing the reader to do the work.

Screenwriting for contests and writing specs can be a little different depending on whether the contests have guidelines like budget or location. Nicholl has no such guidelines because these screenplays aren't being opted or produced.

Ann Wesley Hardin said...

That makes alot of sense. LOL. Thanks for the explanation. Makes me think of that scene in Amadeus when he's furiously writing, we're hearing the music he hears as he writes, then the doorbell rings (or something) and POOF. It stops.

Gotta say, I bow down to you guys. It's an exacting art.