Thursday, April 27, 2006

Things I never knew about Julius Caesar

The best of this week's student essays:

"Caesar sounded like a great guy. I really think if he weren't to get murdered this whole story would be so different. I guess that's how life is."

"Brutus convinced the common people that he should become the leader. A man named Antony doesn't want that to happen. Because he knows that the people are fickled so he tells them to make there own opinion. But Brutus thinks otherwise, so he starts a war. Brutus' army was dieing quickly. Antony starts looking for Brutus, when he finally found him Brutus had committe suicide. Antony was not aware of Brutus ugly ending."

"This story takes place in Rome. the Author of this book is William Snakes spears. this iS A Play from the lates (100-44 B.C.)"

"I do demonstrates understanding to this play cause if this would of happened to me my mom would of felt bad. That's why I respect this play or story."

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Juggling ideas

I'm having trouble staying focused on my writing projects. I started a Supernatural episode. It went way out of control, so I abandoned it. Then I started the feature spec I'm currently working on, but a lot of the emotional things I was going through have changed, thus changing how I perceive my characters. I still feel good about the script, but I'm getting impatient to be done with it. When I started I raced through the first act. Now I'm a little stalled. It probably doesn't help that I spend so much time at the gym now and I'm too beat to write when I get home.

I also want to restart my Supernatural episode and take it in a different direction. I just hope the season finale doesn't screw up the dynamic they currently have. That's the danger with TV specs: you never know if what you wrote will be any good tomorrow. My Lost spec was awesome, but it was about Shannon and she's dead now, so there goes that month's worth of work.

When I'm done with that, I want to work on a My Name is Earl spec. I'm finally taking a stab at comedy, which I've had no success at int he past. But I figure that of all the shows on the air, this one I can relate to better than any other. The dialogue is natural to me because these characters are similar to people to whom I'm loosely related.

Then there's the big comedy spec that will take a ton of money and time to research. Then there's the historical queen story I've been manipulating for ages in my head. On top of that, I still want to go back to my high school story and figure out whether or not it was a comedy or drama. Then I have to take a good long look at my action script and fix it.

I just have too many ideas to do them all justice, it seems. I just have to finish this feature first. Then I'll have something permanent to be proud of.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Think inside that box, dammit!

Teachers are stuck at the bottom of the totem pole in the education beurocracy. We answer to assistant principals and principals and central office personnel and parents and councilors and the voters and the King of England and your mom. And with every breath our critics use to praise our sacrifices, they follow it up with a lecture on our deep flaws.

That's why I wish I could just shut up and do the proper pedagogy and keep my head down, but I just can't. At my old school I was always getting in trouble for talking about religions other than Christianity, or for expressing my opinion that stupid things are, in fact, stupid. I just can't seem to write the correct things on the board to get points. I never really learned how to kiss ass properly.

I was told today that because we were reading Julius Caesar aloud in class without the California standards written on the board, my kids "weren't learning anything." Apparently, I need to hand out more worksheets. I've long held a theory that an administrator should be able to walk into my classroom at any moment and see what I do, so I don't make plans to change anything the day of my observations. Other teachers break out the dog and pony show with aplomb, but I figure that this is me and I'm not going to apologize for it. But now I feel deflated, because an administrator whom I admire greatly and would follow to another school in a heart beat just lambasted my methods. I'm not straight out of an education class. I've got too much common sense.

Next time an administrator comes into my room I will dutifully put up the California standards on the board, spew forth the boring, organized lesson and wait for them to leave so I can teach again.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Know when to hold 'em

Our school has a weird way of scheduling the kids. Instead of being in a class for two quarters to get your grade, you get two "mesters", eight weeks at a time. That way, if you pass the first part of a class but not the second, you only have to take half the class over. It means that halfway through a class, I get students coming in and out. Then we have the inveitable changes in and out, all with kids from two different tracks. It's bizarre.

The problem at the moment is that I am required to teach one of my classes To Kill a Mockingbird. First of all, although it's an excellent novel, it's horrible to read aloud to a class. The kids rebelled last week and hid all the books. I actually had them riveted while I defined literary terms, they were so glad not to be reading. So, with only a few days left in the mester and a third of the book left to finish, I opted for an emergency manoeuvre. I'm showing the movie and asking discussion questions on both the book and the movie.

Sometime, when things don't work like they're supposed to, you just have to be able to change on the fly. Lockdowns, riots, political rallies, assemblies, testing - all these things get in the way of teaching, and they do it a lot. There's just never enough time to do what you need to do. Then there's the feeling in your gut when you know a lesson is not working at all. That just gets worse when it's the whole book that's the problem. You have to be able to think on your feet. Sometimes, that means showing a movie.

I recently had this come up with my scripts, too. I was working on an episode of Supernatural for a couple of weeks, and it just wasn't working. The story was getting a little more ridiculous and I wasn't sure what the bad guy's motivation really was. So I scrapped it. Weeks later, I was watching a couple of Supernatural episodes in a row, and the answer came to me. I can use the same opening scenes and change everything else to make an episode that is not only more coherent, but more about the two brothers and less about the guest star. I feel much better about the whole thing. The episode doesn't have to be scrapped, just rearranged. I guess it's not wasted time as long as you're learning.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Adventures at Bally's

I love going to the gym. I've wanted to join a gym for years, but never had the money until now. Now that I can, I obessively go at least four days a week, sometimes as many as six, and I have a psychotic personal trainer. At least two of his other clients are teachers, and I don't know how he does it, but he only trains young women who are fairly nice to look at. I guess that's Hollywood for you.

He told me that two nights ago a fight almost broke out at the gym. There was a line for an ellyptical machine and a girl was on it five minutes longer than the 30 minute time limit, so my trainer asked her to get off. That started a near-riot, as she didn't want to and other people started weighing in. They had to call in one of the buff, scary trainers to chill everybody out.

I can't imagine getting in a fight over a cardio machine. There are very few things I could imagine getting in a fight over these days, although I used to fight all the time as a kid, over anything that moved me to irritation.

My teenage students like to fight over nothing sometimes. I just always tell them to wait until they get out of class so I don't have to clean up the blood. That makes them laugh and usually defuses the situation, because whatever they were pissed about doesn't seem so bad if you chill for a few minutes. But grownups should know better.

I saw Ron Glass at the gym the other day. I love Ron Glass. If I was on the treadmill for ten minutes and he wanted my spot, I'd give it up. I'd probably give it up for anybody who's really nice. I can always run on the track. I guess when you spend all day around impatient, whining teenagers, you don't really have the energy to care about waiting in line for a cardio machine. Or maybe I'll just get my trainer to beat people up for me.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Sometimes you just can't stop the violence

"Advisory" is what our school calls homeroom, and it lasts for 25 minutes every day. We're supposed to read with them or do some test practice and stuff, but they know very well they don't get a real grade for this class, so I gave up trying in the third week.

Now they play a game every day called "beat the crap out of each other with paper bats". The boys roll construction paper up into baseball bat shapes and attack each other with it until they all collapse. The girls watch. Then five minutes before the end of the period, they clean up. It is the funniest thing I've ever seen. Today I laughed so hard I was in tears. And I'm so much less stressed out than when I tried to get them to learn every day. There's no malevolence in their beatings. They smile the whole time, and they never attack anybody who's not armed.

Sometimes, as a teacher, you just have to go with the flow. If a lesson ain't working, let it go and try something else. The boys aren't really learning anything, but they're getting out a lot of their pent-up energy so they can concentrate in other classes. And now they really look forward to advisory every day.

If there's a lesson to be learned from this for writing, it's that I have to stop working so hard for every scene to mean something. I usually spend so much time focused on a scene's significance that I'm unhappy with everything, or devoted to an idea that doesn't work. But I really should just relax and let the story tell itself.

Because sometimes, boys just have to beat the crap out of each other.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

For God's sake, read something.

Best student mistake I've seen this week: "Curley's wife was an expired actress". I suppose, in a way, she was.

Most of my students constantly tell me they hate to read. They'll read everything on My Space, they'll read newspapers, and they'll read magazines about cars. If I put a story in front of them that relates directly to their lives, they'll read it with gusto. So really, they don't hate to read. They just hate to read when they think it's an assignment. That's why you have to get them to think it's their idea, but that's not so easy when they're staring at the pages of Gatsby.

It's interesting to me how that carries over into the film industry. Everybody has to read to improve. Actors have to read scripts, directors, executives, especially writers. But I know tons of people who just don't. My fantastic trainer, bless him, doesn't read books but he wants to act. My next door neighbor is the same. I know screenwriters who don't read scripts for whatever weird reason they've convinced themselves it would be bad. I think it's just lazy.

In one of my writing workshops in college there was a man named Elton who wrote terrible stories and refused to take any criticism. The first day of class the professor asked us to write down the name of our favorite writer. At the time my favorite was Dickens. Elton wrote down his own name. Can you imagine the ego on that guy? It might have been taken for confidence if he wasn't so terrible. But his attitude was so bad the professor eventually refused to share his scripts with the class.

I can't imagine what people do to keep from being bored if they don't read. How do you get any smarter?

I'm reading Wicked at the moment. Very clever. Someone should make it a musical.

Monday, April 17, 2006

I've got too much on my mind to teach today

Teaching is a strange job. If you feel like crap in the morning, you have several options:
1) Call the subfinder. Don't go. Send in a lesson plan and relax. The problem with this is that most substitutes are complete morons, so when you get back the next day you discover that the kids spent the pervious class period watching the NCAA tournament, not finishing their reading of A DOLL'S HOUSE. So now they're a day behind. Plus, they've probably tagged the crap out of the room and thrown trash all over the floor and probably stolen things.

2) Show a movie or assign a group activity. This is my favorite. You can contain your class and monitor their behavior while you play on the internet. The disadvantages are few - you have to have seen the movie before to offset any problems, or you have to make sure the activity is well planned out. They see right through busywork and reject it out of hand. I have a few projects line up in case of emergency, and a few movies for the same reason. They love CRASH. You just have to make sure it connects, although there are some teachers who show completely innapropriate fare like TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE.

3) Put on a brave face. Sometimes this can't be avoided. The kids rebel against the group assignment, or you don't have a decent movie, or you're right in the middle of an important series of lessons and can't break off without doing damage to your momentum. You have to stand in front of the kids pretending nothing's wrong. Sometimes, if it's a really good group, you can tell them you're having a bad day and they'll cut you some slack. But sometimes they expect you to be a saint, untouchable and inhuman.

Either way, you can't just call in sick. Not when you're a teacher. Chaos would erupt and the classroom would be in flames.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Easter Schmeaster

Back in North Carolina my parents are preparing to eat bunny cake. Jesus approves.

I can hear the Catholics singing in the church across the street. I can't tell if they're singing in English or Spanish, but the tune is familiar.

I wonder why TV shows never do Easter episodes. You see Halloween eps, Christmas eps, Valentine's Day eps, but never Easter. Not that I'd ever want to do a holiday episode. There are a few good ones out there, but not many. The episode of FRIENDS where Ross dresses up like the Holiday Armadillo is pretty hilarious. The Halloween episodes of BUFFY were always pretty good, especially when they're all locked inside the house and Anya's running around in a big bunny costume. But every time they have a holiday party on ER somebody ends up having sex for the first time, or a magical baby's born, or somebody on the cast dies or leaves. It's just so over-the-top. Then again, it's ER. "Over the top" is kind of their motto.

So I wouldn't want to write a holiday episode because of the trend toward corniness, but I could see incorporating a holiday into an existing episode. I might try that.

In the meantime, I am going to celibrate Easter with in that house of worship that embraces all of Hollywood: the gym. Then I'm going to do my taxes. And no bunny cake.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Script Editing Offer

There are people every day in and out of LA who are attempting to break into the film industry. Many of them have brilliant ideas and solid scripts, but suck at grammar and punctuation. You may be a non-native speaker or just somebody who doesn't know what a semicolon does. I can help you.

I will read your script for grammar, punctuation and comprehension. I will not read for content. If you are interested in coverage or script notes, I can recommend a few places you can look. My mission is to make sure your script looks as professional as possible.

You can send your script through email as either a PDF or a file compatible with MovieMagic Screenwriter. I will read your script, make notes by page on reading comprehension problems, grammar and punctuation issues. Then I will email my notes back to you.

I am not interested in your plot. I will not steal your ideas; I have enough of my own. That is a promise.

You can pay either with check or through paypal, but payment must be made in advance. The price is $50 for a feature script, $30 for a teleplay or short. I will read your script and have notes back to you in under a week, within two days if you need it for a contest deadline.

If this sounds like something you need, email me. My address is in my profile.

All work and no pay for an uncertain future

I never have enough scripts ready. I focused on television for so long and got a few TV scripts under my belt at the expense of my features, but now all but one of those scripts is useless because of changes in the plot of the show. I still have a HOUSE script, and hopefully that will stay useful for a while. But I need another script to back that one up. I'm thinking about taking on comedy. Who can write MY NAME IS EARL better than a stubborn Southern girl? After all, Jaime Pressley's from a town about an hour away from my hometown.

At the moment I'm working on a feature spec, very dialogue heavy and ripe for Sundance. Not sure that's gonna get me any sales, but it should make a dynamite sample. It's flowing out of my fingers at a rapid pace, so I'm optimistic about the whole thing. Then I'll have a couple of workable features, although my action script needs some work. I'll get to that when my next TV spec is done.

Okay, so I have some work to do.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

3,000 students on 124 pages

I got the yearbook back. At my last school I was in charge of yearbook for three years. Best. Class. Ever. Preppy teenage girls who like to chat about what happened last night on The O.C. or American Idol while I bounce around giving advice and being creative.

Oddly, since I've moved to California and have been out fo the yearbook loop, I've stopped watching The O.C. or American Idol. It seems my new yearbook-obsessed who will be Prison Break. These girls lust over Michael Scoffield, not Seth Cohen.

But I get to start yearbook now. We don't really have any money, and the book as is will be way too short and have way too few copies, but it's a start. I get to start from scratch at least, not have to worry about the old biddies who've decided nothing should ever change. I get to make the rules. Watch out.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Inner City Kids

People always use teachers as the prime example of a profession they admire, but a job they'd never do. They're really glad somebody else does it, but they always ask me really probing questions about what it's like. I'll tell you what it's not like. BOSTON PUBLIC or the new sitcom TEACHERS, DANGEROUS MINDS or SUMMER SCHOOL. Most of your problems are pretty mundane: kids skipping, talking back, refusing to do homework, asking dumb questions three hundred times, stealing your markers and asking to go to the bathroom every single day. I don't usually deal with extreme tests of my spunky will. I'd never bring alcohol to school like the sitcom, although I have known teachers who do. I'd certainly be fired for taking the kids on a non-sanctioned field trip, as they did in a recent episode, although the idea that a principal would forbid a trip to see ROMEO AND JULIET is ridiculous. I've never seen anyone order a class set of books and have them delivered the same day, as they did on BOSTON PUBLIC.

What I have seen is two completely different worlds of education. For years I taught rural kids in the middle of North Carolina's piedmont region. True contry kids. For a senior prank, they put a spray-painted, pregnant goat on the roof of the school.

Then I came here to Los Angeles, where I teach the inner city kids. It's like a different planet. My students told me they have never seen a live snake, think running around barefoot in the dirt is absurd, and think every white person back East is in the Klan. It's a different world, a different culture. My school is 93% Latino, 7% black. That's it. No white kids, no Asian kids, and an elegant mix of colloquial Spanish and English floats through the halls all day.

But the kids I teach now and the kids I taught back in NC are the same at heart. They get bored when they have to read long passages. They want to watch movies all day, unless they actually do watch movies all day; then they complain that they've been watching movies all day. They all love Baz Luhrmann's ROMEO + JULIET.

If I let internet tests dictate my future

You Should Be a Science Fiction Writer

Your ideas are very strange, and people often wonder what planet you're from.
And while you may have some problems being "normal," you'll have no problems writing sci-fi.
Whether it's epic films, important novels, or vivid comics...
Your own little universe could leave an important mark on the world!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006