Sunday, February 24, 2013

Be an expert

I was talking to an aspiring screenwriter the other day who is, quite frankly, a hack. I was polite and agreeable as could be because it was a brief moment at a party, but the whole time she was talking, I just kept thinking "Wow, you represent the worst kind of writer."

She was proud of herself because when she couldn't figure out how to tackle Act 2, she just thought of a movie that had a great sex scene in the middle and copied it. She was really proud that nobody else noticed her theft. Seriously, she said this to me like it was a great accomplishment.

I know this happens a lot. You don't know how to proceed with your script, so you think "What did other movies do?" and if they did them, then it's okay for you to do them. That way, you don't have to work as hard to figure out how to solve your story problems.

Well, kids, I have the solution to all your hacky moments right here - RESEARCH.

When you look stuff up, you learn neat things. Things that will help you as you write.

Writing a story about CIA agents? Read a fucking book by one. There are actually quite a few out there. Want to know what an archaeologist does? Don't just watch Indiana Jones movies. Talk to a fucking archaeologist. Professors have office hours during which they'd rather do anything other than grade papers. Telling a young screenwriter what they do for a living sounds awesome to most of them. You can buy all the technical expertise you want for a price of a cup of coffee.

There's also a website or two where experts on just about any topic you want will answer you. This is a good one:  All Experts.

I'm lucky because I chose a mate wisely. My husband, aka The Beefcake, is law enforcement, and a lot of his buddies are in different branches. Chances are, no matter what branch of law enforcement I want to write about, he knows someone who has worked there. He also knows fighting techniques, general tactics and weapons. Any time he's home, you can hear me holler for him, or, if he's playing Halo Reach, running down the hall to interrupt his vital game time to demand a strategy on how a trained military professional would clear a two-story house.

He is also capable of beating people up and lifting heavy things. It's pretty sweet.

Anyhow, my overall point is, when you know your topic, it gets a lot easier to figure out what your characters would do in certain situations. And when you know that, not only can you properly advance the plot, but you can make your scenes more interesting as well. You can find little anecdotes to squeeze in there, or neat personality quirks you can give your people to make them more individual.

You don't have to copy what's on film if you know how real people act.

So don't be a hack. Go look some stuff up.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


Eight years ago, with the help of my tech-savvy stepdad, my grandmother bought me a Dell Inspiron 1520 with all the bells and whistles. It was the Cadillac of affordable laptops, which is why it lasted me so long. I can still use it, but the thing is so beat up now. The memory is so full I don't have room for Spotify. The Z and B keys don't lock into place, so I can't name characters things that start with those two letters unless I want to stop each time I type in a character and force down the key. The hinges were busted so the lid wobbled.

Anyway, I was trying to ear enough credit card points to get a new computer for free. It took me a decade to earn half the points I need, so, you know, I was getting there. Then I got a check for some overpaid stuff and it was just enough to go to Best Buy in Hollywood and then home to research and then to Best Buy in Burbank where I finally committed to an HP Envy.

So, new computer. I spent a day transferring everything and loading all the software, like you do. In the process, I decided to take the opportunity to organize my documents folders.

When I first started writing screenplays it was sort of chaos - a file called "My Scripts" where I threw every draft. But sometimes drafts would end up in the Movie Magic folder instead. And sometimes I'd change up the method I used for identifying titles. I had started to organize a little better with the last script, but I'd never really cleaned it up completely

So with this transfer of things to my brand new shiny toy, I put it all on my external hard drive and then moved everything over one bit at a time so I could put it right. Now everything that wasn't organized is finally in place.

I have a folder for screenplays, and there's nothing in it but other folders. I have a folder for abandoned projects, a file for story ideas, a file for development stuff like cute lines of dialogue I heard someone say or an article I might want to think about using for inspiration. Then each script has its own file. Within each file is everything I used to develop the project, like a character sketch or an outline, or the other outline, or the final outline (I outline a lot). Then I have each draft of the script, always titled Name Of Project1, NameOfProject2, etc. Whatever is the last number is the most recent draft. I've never really needed to go back more than one version for any reason, but I keep all the drafts just in case.

I like being organized. I like being able to find things when I need them. So now I have a neatly organized desk and a neatly organized computer. Next up, I tackle the crap on Beefcake's desk behind me and all that random stuff on the floor that I don't want to look at.

How do you organize your stuff?

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Words of inspiration from a fighter

I've never been a big fan of team sports. I'm from North Carolina, so I'm legally obligated to have a favorite college basketball team (Duke) but really I'm a fan of the individual athlete. For one thing, individual sports tend to have fewer rules for me to try to remember.

My favorite sport is easily MMA, which you know if you follow my Twitter feed at all. There's a lot to love about the sport. It's more than just two guys beating each other up. It's a battle of wills and strategy where on any given day, a fat guy can knock out an Adonis with one well-placed overhand right. One fighter can be winning round after round, but he slips up for half a second and suddenly he finds himself tapping out in a triangle choke. There's a lot more intelligence involved in an MMA fight than most people realize.

Dana White, who runs the UFC, has a saying: "Never leave it in the hands of the judges." He means, knock the guy out or submit him. Don't count on points to save you. Don't calculate, beat his ass.

I always think about that when I go to write a script. It's obviously not so cut and dry in writing, but you can always go into writing something with the attitude that you will knock it out of the fucking park. Don't calculate the points, submit that son of a bitch.

And that was fine until this last week's Ultimate Fighter. Coach Chael Sonnen gave an amazing speech about failure that kind of blew me away. One of his fighters who is an amazing talent, expressed doubt about his skills. After giving the kid a pep talk, he sat for a moment alone with the camera and said the following:

"When doubt seeps in, you've got two roads.  You can take either road.  You can go to the left or you can go to the right, and believe me, they’ll tell you failure’s not an option.  That is ridiculous. Failure is always an option.  Failure is the most readily available option at all times.  But it’s a choice.  You can choose to fail, you can choose to succeed.  And if we can plant seeds and let him know 'Move your feet, keep your hands up, stay off the bottom,' that is the road to victory.  Or -  self-doubt and negative talk.  And that is the road to failure.  But failure is always there, and it’s okay to recognize that."

Failure is always an option. There's a moment where you decide whether or not it's the option you're going to take. You can wallow in it, or you can accept it as a possibility and then move on to figure out what you need to do next.