Monday, July 30, 2007

I Who Have Nothing

...but raw disappointment this year will be taking a little time off writing to work on some stuff I have to do professionally. When I get back to it, we'll take a look at successful films WITHOUT a romantic secondary story line or subplot and figure out what makes them work. Meanwhile, congratulations to the 254 quarterfinalists in the Don and Gee Nicholl Screenwriting fellowship. I am not one of you.

By way of explanation: Books arrived today from the University of North Texas for a three year program I need to take due to a technicality. I wouldn't mind except I've already graduated from this program and even assisted in teaching the program. But not retaking the entire three years is causing me a credibility problem at work. It's a long story but basically, this is pretty much graduate study material and is going to put serious demands on my time.

When it rains, it comes a stinkin' torrent. Will fit as much writing in as I can, but the job pays the electricity so this other thing has to be done. Meanwhile, I need film titles where there is NO ROMANTIC subplot. I'm making a list. Ready . . . GO!

And Todd, you realize, of course, this means no autographed shoes.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Not Getting in a Hurry

My Nicholl letter arrived on July 29th in 2005 and on August 3rd in 2006. (Yes, I remember the dates) Not stalking my mail lady this year because what's done is done and whatever happens happens but hoping every last one of your fingers and toes are crossed. I don't really believe in luck. I just like the mental image of 6,000 people out there with all their fingers and toes crossed.

UPDATE 10:00 p.m.: Several screenwriters got their dink and congrats letters today so while I'm still collected and patient and whatever will be will still be and there's nothing I can do about it either way, my mail lady is now fair game.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Duck, Duck, Me

Unk tagged me with this randomness thing where you have to tell eight things about yourself and yeah, I did this not too long ago but maybe somebody will need these additional flaky (but ever so boring) facts one day for trivia about famous screenwriters. Or, you know, not-so-famous ones who tried really hard ---

  • I'm addicted to antique books. I collect readers, novels, and children's books from the early 1900's but I have a few music and history books too. It's like reading a museum artifact every time I open one. I still have a few of my own childhood books. When I'm gone, I hope whoever winds up with my books treats them like treasures a little girl loved and cherished her whole life.

  • While we're on books, some of my favorite authors are Alexandre Dumas, Raphael Sabatini, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Victor Hugo. Oh, and I got hooked on those Lemony Snicket books, too.

  • I am a musophobic - no joke. Outdoors, if a mouse is being batted around by my cat, I'm cool. Kill it, kitty. No biggie. But indoors, I see a rodent and get chest pains like a heart attack and I actually believe I'll die if the vile thing touches me. No, I'm not talking about the lady standing in a chair kind of scared. I'm talking flashbacks to rats crawling in my hair when I was a kid and biting my arms and legs while I collected eggs in the wrecked out cars my great grandmother used as chicken coops. It's an illness. I almost lost my mind a few months ago when Norway rats invaded my office and took up residence in my printer.

  • My mother's father wrote Wasted Days and Wasted Nights for Freddy Fender on a cocktail napkin in a bar. My mother still has the napkin. But Freddy Fender now has sole credit for most of the music written with or by Wayne Duncan. If you get into any music business, make sure you have an entertainment attorney and don't' marry a sixteen year old girl in Honduras when you're a seventy year old man about to die of cirrhosis of the liver.

  • My other grandfather would make trips to Canada and type all his postcards to me. I still have every card. I also have his typewriter. His name for me was Bluebell. My brother was Tadpole. My sister was Daisy. He never used our given names. That was just his way. So was telling stories. I'm embarrassed to admit how old I was before I figured out miniature monkeys do not sit inside traffic signals changing the lights. Sorry to spoil it for you if you didn't know. He also rolled his own cigarettes, blew smoke rings, did a strange alternating rhythmic thing with his pectoral muscles, and could suck a radish up his nose from across the table. Good times.

  • My mother was a teenage beauty queen in Harlingen but was disqualified for lying about her age. She wasn't old enough to enter. She got married and began having babies shortly after that so she never entered again. She had three children before she was twenty. We now look the same age.

  • Sunday is chocolate covered cherries day. Or Snickers day. And, Big Red. Big Red is God's soda, you know. At least, that's what I always believed as a little girl in San Antonio. God probably also eats chocolate covered cherries and Snickers although I doubt He only eats them on Sunday. He also doesn't have to work out at the gym the rest of the week to burn off His excess calories.

  • If you ever send me flowers, make them white daisies. I love roses but I have a yard full of my own and cut roses don't live very long. White daisies are just so darn happy! Oh, and I like bluebells but tadpoles don't make a very nice bouquet. They do, however, show up by the thousands when your backyard is flooded and they conjure up fond memories of a radish sniffing grandfather.
  • Saturday, July 21, 2007

    Silk Purses and Sows' Ears

    Fans of Animaniacs will remember the Good Idea/Bad Idea segments which featured variations of the same idea where one works and one doesn't work.

    Good Idea: Drinking fresh milk from the carton.
    Bad Idea: Drinking fresh milk from the cow.

    Regardless of how well the bad idea is executed, it's predestined for failure by its very essence (as the mental image of getting your milk straight from the cow would suggest).

    We're often guilty in screenwriting of doing such an excellent job of executing characters, scenes, and story elements that when they don't work, we fail to recognize them for what they really are -- bad ideas -- albeit well developed and well executed bad ideas, they're basically sows' ears or deadwood or some other negative analogy for an albatross around our screenwriting necks.

    Excellent execution does not negate a poor idea.

    We writers are a possessive bunch of wordsmiths. Once we thread a few words together, we hate to yank out our own stitches even if we're left with a superfluous character or a misplaced scene. Sometimes we think if we just keep our beloved string of words long enough, everything else will come join them. Maybe. But one of two things needs to happen: (1) the rest of the story must change to accommodate the bad idea or (2) the bad idea must be disguised to go with the rest of the story. Rewriting a whole screenplay is, of course, at the writer's discretion but disguising a bad idea to make it work doesn't change the bad idea.

    Okay, let's go someplace else for a minute. For those of us whose middle age weight gain keeps Lean Cuisine in business and who fork out cash for gym memberships only to sweat next to pencil sized hot girls in push up bras wearing size 3 exercise outfits, this big fat lie exposed is a victory for ordinary women who have thought, "I could look like that if they airbrushed my stretch marks and photo-shopped my back fat".

    Come on, Redbook. You let me down. And, you got caught doing it.

    I expect fashion magazines, swimsuit calendars, and those literary masterpieces in my brother's bathroom cabinet (guess what? he doesn't keep the extra toilet paper in there) to slenderize, buff, bleach, and erase female flaws but Redbook? Those women are supposed to look more like me.

    Kind of.

    You see, I don't JUST have crow's feet. I have crow's ankles and thighs and they have freckles. There are even freckles on that big Witchy Poo mole next to the Kirk Douglas cleft on my masculine square chin. Oh, and gravity is not my friend either. Duct tape and super glue are important wardrobe staples. So are staples.

    Wait. Where was I?

    Oh yeah. Story development. That Redbook cover is a well executed work of art. Somebody painstakingly removed Faith Hill's back fat, slenderized her arms, erased her skin flaws, and corrected her posture. But the original photo is still out there and so is the person who posed for it. No amount of photo-shopping will change that. The reality of who she is hasn't changed. Only the execution of perception has changed.

    Yeah, yeah, I know plenty of bad ideas have been made into movies. But imagine spray painting a dry dead lawn. It's still dead. It may be green but would you put a sign in the yard announcing yourself as the landscaper? Now, picture Michaelangelo painting the nine scenes from the book of Genesis right there on that lawn as if it was the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. The quality of the mural is not the question. The lawn will still go up in flames if somebody drops a cigarette butt. The execution is genius but it's still a very bad idea.

    My grandmother used to say that you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. You can, however, carrying around handbags made of sows' ears. If you have a legitimate place in your story for a sow's ear, then by all means, write a sow's ear. But how many sows' ears are in your screenplay masquerading as silk purses?

    A professional writer once told me that the most important key to becoming a better writer is knowing that you don't know it all and being GENUINELY willing to learn. He stressed GENUINELY but didn't elaborate. I think his subtext was that I would, over the years, witness people faking a willingness to learn but that fooling everyone else wouldn't help me one little bit.

    If I have learned anything about screenwriting, it's that you must learn as much on your own by discovery and by trial and error as you do by allowing somebody to spoon feed you what THEY learned by discovery and trial and error. How else will you ever be able to discern good advice from hogwash? Wisdom from rubbish?

    And, if you can't discern treasures from trash while you have the luxury of being univested, how can you possibly make the separation in your own work when you are personally involved?

    Objectivity becomes paradoxical.

    One of my favorite Good Idea/Bad Idea segments sums up our struggle with figuring out when ideas don't work:

    Good Idea: Playing the accordion at a polka festival.
    Bad Idea: Playing the accordion anywhere else.

    The assumption here is that an accordion player's love of the instrument blinds him to what we all know: the accordion isn't the kind of instrument that works in mainstream entertainment regardless of how well the guy plays. How many of us share that kind of devotion to our craft?

    We all struggle with certain characters and write scenes that just don't feel like they're working. That doesn't mean they're automatically bad ideas. They could be brilliant ideas that simply need a whole lot of silk before they can become a purse. The burden is on the writer to figure it out before the screenplay crosses a reader's desk.

    Readers are adept at differentiating silk purses from sows' ears. Writers need those same skills, especially when they visit screenwriting blogs that post about the best execution of bad ideas. How else will they know if the post itself isn't a very bad idea?

    Wednesday, July 11, 2007

    That Would Never Happen

    We've all done this. We're watching a film or reading a screenplay, rockin' happily along in our la-la land, when "No way! That would never happen!" We're brutally yanked out of story land because our brain refuses to accept some fractured piece of logic the film tried to feed us.

    Welcome to the land of broken magic.

    Often, in the course of reviewing screenplays and critiquing films, reviewers comment about how a situation was too much of a suspension of reality to work for them or that it simply could never happen at all. Suspending reality is a good thing. That's what we do in screenwriting. Suspending it beyond recognition is something else. The trick is to to create an orderly and logical suspension of reality that can be followed and understood. That's, I suppose, what separates the masters from the apprentice writers.

    In storytelling, reality is a product of the author's pen, not the reader's existence. One of my complaints about online peer review forums is that while writers certainly have a burden to create a reality that works in the imagination of the reader, too many of these reviewers, I think, are subjecting stories to litmus tests based on their own environments. That's not to say that there's no merit in arguing that something would never happen. But the argument has to be based in the story world, not in the reader's world.

    That would never happen moments, for me, fall into three categories: legitimate screwups, spoofs, and misinterpretations.

    LEGITIMATE SCREWUPS - These are genuinely messed up moments where somebody blew it and the magic was lost. In Swimfan, a male arresting police officer gets in the back seat of a squad car with a handcuffed female prisoner about to be transported. That would never happen. Sorry. It just doesn't. Officers don't ride in the back seat with dangerous criminals and they certainly don't ride with females. They call in their beginning and ending mileages when they transport women. Departure and arrival times are then recorded so if they're accused of something inappropriate, a time line can be established. Oh, and as for prisoners being cuffed in the front? Yeah, that happens when cuffing is a formality or the officer is really stupid.

    SPOOFS AND COMEDIC BEATS - These moments aren't supposed to really happen. They're just there to make us laugh but some people have no sense of humor and take them entirely too literally. The result is a that would never happen moment. Of course, that would never happen! That's what makes it funny! Or, not if it the timing is off or it's poorly written.

    MISINTERPRETATIONS - These moments are the ones that actually would happen in another time or place or culture or religion but maybe the filmmaker didn't do his job well enough to convey this to the audience. Or, maybe the reader or viewer has such a narrow outlook on the world that he wouldn't find the magic no matter how well the filmmaker did his job. But if the majority doesn't get it, the problem is probably not with the recipient.

    SCREW-UPS, SPOOFS, MISINTERPRETATIONS, So, how do we keep our readers and viewers from doing that annoying Homer Simpson "DOH!" thingie when they look at our work? For you sophisticated non-Simpsons viewers (Mom), that "DOH!" is like the "Wow, I could have had a V-8" forehead thump but from a beer bellied bald guy who would only have a V-8 if he confused it with a teeny tiny Duff beer can. But to answer the question -- there is one back there some place -- I have a few self imposed rules.

    The Roller Coaster Rule - Reality is organized chaos. Roller coasters look like a looping, twisting, mess but every turn, climb, and drop has been carefully designed and engineered. Whatever reality we create in our story worlds has to be planned, purposeful, and organized even if it looks like chaos and feels like chaos to passengers along for the ride.

    The Pluto Rule - Reality isn't for Indian givers. Don't establish a reality and then yank it away (unless that's the story itself). There are still a few questions left unanswered and a place or two left to explore in this universe. But the boundaries of the unknown are shrinking with every book published and every film released. Whatever I create, readers and viewers will probably still accept regardless of how fantastic it may be but they have little patience for situations where it's obvious the writer didn't establish a cause and effect that's logical within itself. Once a story contradicts itself, even commonplace facts lose credibility among the suspect ones.

    Huh? What did she just say?

    Okay, try this. I've never been in outer space. I've been accused of it, but alas, no. However, for as long as I can remember, nine planets have orbited the sun. Nine. I accepted this because there was scientific proof. My teachers said so. My text books said so. Plus, I made a mobile out of Styrofoam balls and tempera paint so it had to be true. If you had told me two years ago that one day in my lifetime, there would only be eight planets orbiting the sun, I'd have said that would never happen because Pluto isn't just going to disappear or get blown to bits by a meteor. But it happened. There are only eight planets now. Pluto has been voted off the island. Reality as I once knew it has been yanked away from me and now all astronomy is suspect in my mind. They're Indian givers. They can't take that away from me. I will ALWAYS think of Pluto as a planet. Always. Pluto has to be a planet. Come on. We named a beloved Disney character after it. It's a planet -- the people's planet.

    I digress.

    The point is - don't do that to your viewer mid-movie. Don't establish a reality in your story and then contradict it or erase it. Or, if you MUST for artistic reasons, then make sure you're a genius and can craft the story so that your reader/viewer doesn't cling to the original reality the way I cling to Pluto.

    I've mentioned before that one of the most annoying suspensions of reality in film for me is the "disturbance of nature" theme in Failure to Launch. The film sets up a certain romantic comedy kind of reality. We get comfortable in it and settle in for a light hearted Nora Ephon-esque romantic story. Suddenly, we're jerked into various Chevy Chase-ish skits where animals attack the main character. In this case, it's because he's is a freak of nature still living at home and it just doesn't work with the reality already set forth in the film. If this was Caddyshack, it would work. If this was Mr. Deeds, it would work. But the reality established by Failure to Launch doesn't support angry chipmunks.

    The Equator Rule - Reality is because I said so. My pen is the final answer. How much inaccurate information did we all learn about dinosaurs from Jurassic Park? I'm sure more than one paleontologist said "that would never happen" during that film but does that make it a flawed film? Or, does that make it a film that established a reality that viewers could feel engaged in even if it took liberties with prehistoric animal behavior? The important thing about Jurassic Park is that most viewers didn't sit there thinking "that would never happen". They were too busy marveling, screaming, laughing, and enjoying the ride in an open jeep while experiencing the terror of being pursued by a T-Rex.

    If my story establishes that the temperature is twenty degrees below zero at the equator and the abominable snowman lives there, then that's the reality of the story. It's as much the reality of that story as a talking droid in Star Wars or a hobbit living in middle earth in Lord of the Rings.

    Somebody mentioned on this blog that the wedding scene during Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End was too much of a suspension of reality to accept. I found that odd considering the myriad of outlandish characters and inconceivable events taking place in the film. We've got dead people in boats, ghosts floating under water, barnacley and shell-headed fish people, a titanic squid, an undead monkey, a live heart beating in a chest, a tentacle-faced guy walking around with a gaping hole in his chest, a sea goddess who turns into a hundred thousand crabs, and a pirate licking the brain he just removed from his own skull but it's a wedding amid a swordfight that bugs ya?

    Still, most men I've asked said they didn't like the wedding part in this film. The reality established in this film wasn't stretched or suspended for a swordfight wedding on a ship in a spinning vortex. I think the problem with these guys is the REALITY of marriage. Period. A wedding is still a wedding and men in the audience don't want the cold, hard reality of marriage to momentarily wreck the adventure. They aren't annoyed because that would never happen. They're annoyed because they know darned good and well it could.

    The Aunt Lizzie Rule - Reality isn't stagnant. It changes with time and culture and continents. My Aunt Lizzie cleaned house in a dress and apron every day. She got out of bed an hour before my uncle to put her make-up on so he wouldn't see her without it. Even when she was in the hospital dying of Cancer, she begged my cousin to help her with her face and hair before my uncle arrived to visit. If I was writing a devoted immigrant housewife from Austria, my Aunt Lizzie would be it. A modern 2007 woman wouldn't do any of those things but Aunt Lizzie's characteristics would work in a spoof, a period piece, or a 2007 story if my character is old and set in her ways, daft, senile, caught in a time warp or suffering from Alzheimer's.

    Events that happened twenty, thirty, or fifty years ago may not happen today but they work in stories if set in the proper time and context. Too many writers put today's behavior, statutes, standards, and environments in their period pieces and vice-versa and then wonder why people say that would never happen. They might even point to my equator rule and say if they write it that way, it must be so. True. But that doesn't mean it's logical or that it will work. Remember the roller coaster rule.

    My high school journalism teacher, Mrs. Hooper, who went by Hoop because it was more newsroomy than "Mrs. Hooper" and less masculine than "Boss" or "Chief", took me aside one day for what I assumed would be her customary "go get 'em, Tiger" speech before a writing competition. She pointed out a young honor student from Highland Park High School who had transferred from Austin and said he was a brilliant mind by all accounts, the son of a former press secretary to Lyndon B. Johnson himself. A press secretary's son! Oh, my gosh! She was surely about to warn me that he was my toughest competition. Nope. She told me not to talk to him or make him angry in any way. He was a killer.

    No way. That would never happen! I was in competition with a killer? It was all very hush hush. The teachers weren't allowed to talk about it. He was a minor. But they were terrified of him so the teachers secretly talked about it anyway.

    Hardly two and a half years had passed since John Christian had walked into a Murchison Junior High School English classroom and shot his teacher three times with his father's .22-caliber rifle in front of 30 students. He had been only thirteen at the time. Now here he was, barely sixteen, and his slate was technically clean even though he had supposedly been found schizophrenic and suicidal and even though a judge (Hume Coker) had ordered him to a Dallas psychiatric hospital until he was 18 years old.

    Whether it was privilege or family ties or his age or his father's connections, I don't know. Nor do I have all the facts. But John Christian appears to have spent a short time at Timberlawn Psychiatric Hospital and then lived under the foster care of a Dallas physician while he finished public high school and went on to graduate with a law degree from the University of Texas.

    Can you even BEGIN to imagine a child today strolling into school and killing his teacher and then going on to graduate from a public school as if nothing had happened? That would never happen today but I was there. I sat in a desk three feet away from him as if he was just any other student because he WAS just any other student even after killing Wilbur (Rod) Grayson, Jr., a 29 year old first year teacher, in front of his entire class.

    If I wrote a character in a 1981 story who had been a teacher killer and for whatever reason managed to get back in public schools and graduate, who is going to read my screenplay and NOT say that would never happen? The cruel reality of our daily existence with recurring violence in schools will certainly affect the way anyone receives a story like that one.

    So, if people are going to draw conclusions based on their own lives anyway, is there really anything we can do?

    Reality is organized chaos
    Reality isn't for Indian givers
    Reality is because I said so
    Reality isn't stagnant

    Okay, okay already, so I'm not McKee. But the reality of story reality is that even with our best effort, there's a limit to what we can do to prevent the that would never happen moments. No amount of engineering prevents roller coasters from breaking down, Pluto really isn't a planet anymore and charming aunts who once vacuumed in checkered dresses will eventually lose their battles with Cancer.

    Unless somebody finds a cure.

    That may never happen.

    But it doesn't stop us from making the effort.

    Sunday, July 08, 2007

    What to Wear to the Oscars

    For the woman that wants to look sexy AND professional while escaping from a sinkhole in the middle of a flooded Main Street. But things are drying up around here. Mowed the half of my grass today that isn't still under water so maybe I'll just save these little darlings for the premier of that Aquawoman film I now have to write.

    Speaking of Oscar contenders, is it too soon to start counting down the arrival of Nicholl letters? Twenty two days. Wait. Was that a yes? Never mind. Can't you just picture Greg Beal and all those deputy Beals scrambling to rank screenplays while waiting for those last minute readers to turn in their scores? Poor guy.

    B-A-T-C-H-E-L-L-O-R. Mail that letter first, Greg. For pity's sake. If you have any kind of heart at all, mail that one first. Or, you know, text my cell about how my screenplay changed your life and that it was a contemplative kind of greatness that made you call your mother and get a tribal tattoo and that as soon as this little competition thingie is over you'll be off to junket around the globe digging sanitary sewer systems in underprivileged countries -- in which case, you may actually want a pair of these. Black would look best with business casual but I'd go with orange if you're a Bermuda shorts kind of guy.

    Thursday, July 05, 2007

    This Is Not a Water Park

    Okay, so now it's a water park.

    Troubling is the number of parents who would actually allow their kids to play here. Oh sure, it looks harmless enough but are there power lines beneath that slide? Is there a hidden undercurrent?

    Children are being swept away while they play in flooded streets, rising creeks, and rushing culverts. Many are rescued. Many are not. Many parents are watching from from ten feet away because they didn't realize they gave little Johnny permission to go drown himself.

    Thirteen people dead. Four still missing.


    The storm impacted areas include 48,000 square miles from North Texas to the Rio Grande Valley, a section roughly the size of the state of Mississippi. We've got State disaster declarations on 44 Texas counties and Federal disaster declarations on six North Texas counties so far but still counting as we await word on five others.

    The good news is that clear skies are supposedly on the way as are the National Guard. According to the Dallas Morning News, Governor Rick Perry has activated more than 250 Texas National Guard soldiers to help in emergency response efforts. Whee. More than 250, he says? For the size of Mississippi?

    Yeah. That'll help.

    Monday, July 02, 2007

    Independence Day Poem

    "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."
    – Ray Bradbury

    Ain't it the truth? The problem with creativity though is that sometimes our footprints are too allegorical or symbolic for just anyone to follow. Case in point. This very odd poetic argument written by me, NOT Ray Bradbury--

    Swollen words of vanity, of artistry, and skill,
    Cannot persuade a mountain that its consciousness is ill
    Or that its mass does sway and shudder, never standing still.
    No turmoil, angst, or peril lurks amid my vision blurred
    Though warning cries bear witness to a whirlwind you have spurred
    By gossip born of malcontent, not ripples that occurred.
    So servile is the valley as it winds about your heels.
    Once your pride, it held your side and now, see how it kneels,
    Collecting flesh and bone you shed. Imagine how that feels.
    Oh, howling wind of futile breath, why must we bandy more
    The merits of my grandeur and the envy of the shore?
    These breezy jealous protests are a vain transparent bore.
    You curse all nature's elements but reign without a shield,
    Too ignorant to tremble at your destiny to yield
    And fall before a stalwart power that blindness has concealed.
    Yet I prevail against you still, your gusts, cloudbursts, and sleet
    While all your efforts flow in brooks and rivers at my feet.
    Who shall we say, then, of us two, must now admit defeat?
    Pathetic denial.
    A gale is free to blast and grind with nothing to impede
    Erosion of immobile peaks left standing there to bleed.
    Defeat, you ask? Which one of us? Which one of us, indeed.

    Stupid mountain. He really thinks he doesn't have to bow before the howling wind. This is a rare political commentary from an author who usually avoids writing about such things. It seemed like a fitting Independence Day tribute.