Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Screenwriting Books

I'm back in the fight to outline this screenplay. Last night, my slightly mushy brain came up with a pretty decent idea to fix the whole thing, and it continued to work on it overnight. By this morning it seemed like the new approach was pretty workable and I started writing it down. I'd like to say a couple of words about how I'm approaching that.

I previously mentioned Blake Snyder and Alex Epstein as influences on structuring my work. It's pretty hard to really name a favorite between their two books. The couple of books I'd read before them, Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge and Screenplay by Syd Field, were useful overviews, but were vague on specific techniques. Yes, they discussed the three acts. Michael even offered a way to format an outline, but his approach seemed both heavily burdened with detail about what to track for each scene and lacking in practical advice on how to figure out what scenes to include.

Then I read Alex Epstein's Crafty Screenwriting. This was helpful. He started with the basics on developing a hook and then gave solid, practical advice about plot, characters, dialogue and the rest. I used his guidance while working on my second screenplay. But I guess the part of my brain that's good at organizing some things just didn't quite absorb enough about the process to make me successful at organizing the screenplay. It still ran out of gas about halfway through. I needed more.

Blake Snyder's Save The Cat! was the book that put it all together for me. It really might be The Last Book on Screenwriting [I'll] Ever Need (but I doubt it, because I like books). From his insightful breakdown of the beats of a movie, to his useful taxonomy of story genres, to his step by step advice on breaking down a story using 'the board', this book is filled with the tools I think I need to finally put together a screenplay that works. All the other books have their place, but Save The Cat! is the one I go to first to figure out what I need to put into a script.

So, I'm back to it. My logline is revised to incorporate the new approach. I have two fresh pages of notes for how to outline about 2/3 of the story, sort of a synopsis. I plan to get the rest of the synopsis/notes written down tomorrow morning and perhaps even start arranging scenes on 'the board'. It's just possible that I'll get that done and be able to write out the detailed outline by Sunday night. We'll see. I am recharged to get back to work and might be a bit optimistic.

I still don't want to say to much in this forum about what I'm working on. What I will say is that it's supposed to be a comedy (if I can write funny) and it's supposed to be family friendly (I think I can do that). And if you read STC!, you'll find that Blake would put it in the genre of Out of the Bottle. So that, or OOTB, is how I'll refer to the project from now on. It's not really I Dream of Jeannie. More like The Brass Bottle meets Home of the Brave (though I'm still trying to find a better second feature).

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

mini-review: "Juno" [B-]

Am I the only one who sees through all the hype on this? Even Roger Ebert loved it. Why?

I guess teenagers talk like this, but not all the time. It takes months to come up with witty repartee. And then you stick with it for months without moving on to the next thing. In the very first scene, I wanted to smack Rainn Wilson for talking to a customer in such a belittling manner. Yikes! Why would anyone shop there? Apparently, writing over-the-top banter, outrageous characters, and a simple plot are what get you an Academy Award for screenplay.

As for the rest, I suppose it was meaningful and raw and realistic. Juno's defensive mechanism was to always be 'on', which I found more annoying than endearing. She came off as much too cool and calculating for a 16yo. People sure argued with each other a bunch, which I also found almost as grating as they found each other. The message that everyone ultimately stuck together and made a bad situation work, for the good of the child, was probably what audiences and critics liked. In the end, that made it almost work for me. But I mark it down for being a wise acre.

mini-review: "Definitely, Maybe" [B+]

This is a very pleasant, low-key romantic comedy. There are places where the writing was probably a bit contrived and others where it could have been edged up a notch. But overall it was entertaining and enjoyable and I'd recommend it as a way to warm up an evening.

Outlining Is Hard

Having written four almost-novel-length rough drafts for NaNoWriMo and three screenplays for ScriptFrenzy, I already know that long-form writing is real work. But when I'm in the day-to-day of writing chapters and scenes, it's fun and rewarding work. Even when I know what's going down on the page is crap, I know I will (or am supposed to) come back and fix it later and I can get in the flow.

In those projects, the rough spots I ran into always had to do with story--trying to come up with at least the semblance of a feasible set of characters, setting, and plot. But once I thought I had those in hand, I dove in and figured I'd be able to to push my way through. I guess I thought of myself as a seat-of-the-pants writer--a panster. I haven't been satisfied with the results.

On my latest project, a screenplay, I figured I should probably follow the sage advice of the teachers I've been reading and following, namely Blake Snyder and Alex Epstein, and do a real outline, with beats, a basic scene breakdown, and everything. As I noted in a previous post, the personal deadline for having the outline is this Sunday, so I can start writing scenes on Monday. I gave myself last week to finish off the logline (which I mostly did) and this past weekend to do the story beats and breakdown (using 'the board'). I got my ass kicked.

Procrastination and long-weekend mentality meant that I didn't really start until Monday morning. Of course, that meant that I had the whole thing to do in a day, but I figured I'd at least get the high points and fill in the rest this week. I guess what I found out is that what I thought were settled story points had not been giving enough thought, so when I tried to nail them down they kept squishing about like jello. To top it off, my other project, a novel, kept popping into my brain. Like an idiot, I figured I should try to stay focused, so I didn't capture those, either.

It all boils down to the fact that I now see that I am probably a week behind. I need to get these story points settled. Then I can break them down and fill in the beats. Then I can write up the outline. Then I can write the rough draft. I'm getting an inkling of why writers who do this for a living call it work.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Administrivia: Removing WOTD

I've decided the word-of-the-day has to go. If more than one friend ever decide to read this, it will just be in the way. Noise.

It's not completely gone, though. I think I still need the exercise. The existing entries have been copied to a new blog ( and I'll pick up further entries there.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

mini-review: "Changeling" [B+]

Changeling (2008) directed by Clint Eastwood
Writing, acting, directing all first rate; except it was too long. Even so, it kept me involved and guessing what would happen the whole time. If it had not been based on a true story, I would have insisted that more of the characters be given more motivation. As it was, it didn't bother me (much) that people just showed up and did things. That's real life. [B+ or 8/10]

Thursday, May 21, 2009

word: immure

So there she was, immured in her cubicle with someone she didn't understand, but who had authority over her. How could she escape? Why did she feel the need to escape? Where would she go?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"...everybody is the hero of his own story."

I have to give this one to Orson Scott Card, at least for now. It's on page 92 of Characters and Viewpoint (1st Edition, Writer's Digest Books, 1988) and a ways down into this interview.

Editing a Dead Horse

One of these days I'll be here. John August has some sage words of advice on his blog for those times when an author faces the n+1th revision of their long form story, be it screenplay or novel, and is going insane.

The most obvious is to use better words. The most challenging is to remove a seemingly important scene and make the rest of the story work.

But my favorite is to imagine a secondary plot we're not seeing. This appeals to me because it's something I'm trying to do anyway in order to make my plots more realistic. It goes along with another tip I've read and will have to locate an attribution for: every character is the hero of their own story. It's important to remember that everyone in a story is trying to accomplish something. And John's advice is to figure out what they're doing when they're off-screen/offstage/off-page.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

word: fey

What was it about Dan that bothered her? He was a pretty tough boss, but fair. Forthright. Happily married, which meant he didn't hit on her. But sometimes she detected something a little off, like he was from a different time or place. Her grandmother might have said he was fey.

Monday, May 18, 2009

word: pernicious

The impulse to flee was pernicious. It was undermining every effort to be productive. Of course, that's when her boss, Dan, dropped by her desk.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

wotd: exigency

The exigency of putting on a productive face and getting something done for the company was soon overwhelmed by the nagging feeling that she shouldn't really be here. She needed to be with Nathaniel.

Novel vs Screenplay

I'd meant to get a bunch of work started on my next screenplay this weekend. But have had limited success. I think the only thing I've really succeeded at is finally convincing myself that I should drop the idea I was working on, for now. It's just not ready to be what I need it to be. But if I'm going to have something ready to write by the end of the month, I need to get something nailed down very soon. Like in a day or two.

Meanwhile, the noveling part of my brain jumped in and gave me what seem to be a pretty decent two or three pages to a first chapter. Then again, they may be too slow. But that's OK. It's a start. Now I'd better figure out a plot before I try to go much further.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

writing tip: Mind Your Anthropology

Found a handy tip entitled Writers' Tricks and Anthropology by S.C. Butler over at Science Fiction & Fantasy Novelists. It basically points out that there are rules for human behavior that should be kept in mind when writing about humans. In particular, he notes that there are studies that show that the optimal number of human interactions is about six. Thus, one should not try to write about a conversation being held in a group larger than that.

wotd: stolid

She decided to isolated herself in her work and ignore her emotions, becoming that stolid, hard-working employee that her boss appreciated. But that only worked for a about twenty minutes.

Friday, May 15, 2009


Never been there. And I have very little desire to go on a visit, other than to see the locks. But what I do need is a plan. I've spent half a month pretending to get started on my next screenplay. I suppose I've been working on the idea, a bit. It's time to get serious.

On June 1, I intend to start writing the first draft. There. I wrote it down. Now I need to execute. According to the calendar, not counting today, I have 16 days to get my outline written. That's too big to track. Break it down. If I give myself 5 days to write the outline (including one or two drafts), I have to have the story breakdown in 11 days. That's May 26. That let's me spend Memorial Day weekend creating the beat sheet (thank you Blake Snyder). That's in a week. I have one (1) week to finalize the logline and title and get 30-40 scene possibilities written out. That's just over 4 per day.

wotd: querulous

Megan was trying to keep herself in a good mood that day. But it was difficult, given that her coworkers were a tribe of querulous louts with nary a positive thing to say about anything. Her self doubts began feeding off of their negative energy.

wotd=word of the day

Obligatory First Post

It seems obligatory when kicking off a new blog to write a first post that explains it. This is that post. Since nobody is reading this but me, I must be explaining this blog to myself.

It's not beyond the realm of possibility, but certainly highly improbable, that you have discovered that I have written other blogs. Some of them even have been kept up-to-date for a time. Those tended to be very special purpose: documenting an attempt at National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or its sibling Script Frenzy. I also used a blog to track my reading for a while. This blog should be different.

The intent of this blog is to energize and direct my writing. The idea, for now, is to make it a place where I am sure to get something down in writing every day. It may be a random thought or idea. It may be a sentence or paragraph inspired by a daily vocabulary word. It may be a link or pointer to something that I've just found that I think will help my writing.