embrace the pain

Sunday, November 12, 2006

On Becoming Lucid

So my last script was a trainwreck. I climbed out of the wreckage, brushed myself off, and dove right back in with a brand new idea. I think my favorite part of the process is the outline, which is funny because in school I absolutely hated doing outlines on anything - I thought it stifled the spontaneity required to write well. I was, for the most part, wrong. You shouldn't have outlines for poems, or short little stories that hit you while you're sitting around watching leaves fall from a tree one day. But when you're writing as something as involved as a novel or a script, you have to have a general idea of your beginning, middle, and end. If you start out without an idea for an ending, you will find yourself with a story that goes on for 450 pages without a satisfying ending. Trust me, it will happen to you. You may get lucky a few times and manage to pull it off - but sooner or later, it'll catch up to you, and you'll be pissed off at yourself.

I think it's more vital that you have an outline for a script because the writing is so blunt. You have Scene 1, which is followed by Scene 2, and so on. Character A does this and says this, and so on. I am not saying your outline has to be very specific. It'll usually hold no dialogue, or if it does, it'll be one or two lines that just keep screaming out at you when you're thinking about the scene. But you should have a decent idea of the action in the scene and what it is trying to portray to your audience. Because in the end, that's what this is all for, right? The big laughs, the big crys (yes, you snobs, that is intentionally crys, not cries), the big hoo-hahs.

So anyway, now that I've babbled for a bit, I'd like to show you an example of a section of outline converted into script.

First, the outline section:

Opening sequence: Jake leaving home. The house is quiet except for him. He packs quickly, panicked. Leaves writing notebooks behind. Visits his mother in her bedroom. Leaves without goodbyes.
St. Francis, where Jake is now teaching English and Creative Writing. He's sitting at his stool, reading student work, his students listening attentively, when the door opens and Miranda Clark (a teacher at the school and his current girlfriend) leans in to tell him he's got a phonecall.
They're in the hallway. Miranda thought his parents were dead. His parents and he don't talk much.
Jake is in the office. He answers the phone, and his father tells him very bluntly that his mother is dead.

And now for the script. Please note that I cannot convert the format into the web very successfuly without a lot of headache work that I'm not going to put myself through, so the margins and centering of dialogue are not exact. If it bugs you that much, don't read it, wait a month or two until I'm finished, then take the finished manuscript and shove it up your anal-retentive ass.

TITLE: Rochester, Ohio - 1996

A two-story skeleton of a home sits atop a sloping hill. It rises bold and stark against the hollow night sky. The only sign of life: one light shines behind the blinds of a top-floor window. A shadow moves quickly behind the Venetians.

Posters smother the walls; Scarface, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Jim Morrison. A cluttered and nearly hidden desk sits stashed away in the back corner of the room, spiral notebooks and paperback books rising like skyscrapers toward the ceiling. A wrinkled graduation gown hangs forgotten on the desk chair.

JAKE WEATHERS, a desperate and pained 18 year old graduate, pulls open the remaining drawer of his now nearly empty dresser, grabs as much clothing as his arms can handle, and hurries over to the bed. An already overstuffed suitcase lies waiting for him. He haphazardly tosses the clothes into the suitcase and forces it shut.

Jake closes his door quietly and yet the sound still echoes through the narrow hall. He sets the suitcase down by the stairs and makes the next few steps to his mother’s bedroom door. He presses his ear against the door, knocks insincerely, and then opens the door.

Enter bedroom.

Darkness envelops the room, the blinds pulled tight, the lights dead. Two nightstands drowning in picture frames flank the king-sized bed that holds GAIL WEATHERS. She lay silent and still atop the covers in the middle of the bed, her head resting on a single feathered pillow.

Jake steps inside and starts to close the door. The darkness presses in on him and he leaves the door cracked instead.

He walks to the bed, apprehensive, scared. Gail lay like a corpse, inanimate. Jake sits down. The water-bed shakes considerably but Gail does not stir. Jake reaches out and takes her hand. Struggling. He opens his mouth to speak but the words are choked back.

A beat, and then he rises. He walks briskly to the door and leaves without a glance back.

The trunk of a blue ‘92 Civic gapes open. Jake struggles to fit the suitcase inside but manages. He slams the trunk down.

The back windshield is covered in marker. Class of ‘96, Weather Man, 1996.

He looks back to the house, which now lies completely dark. A shudder, and then he climbs into the car. It starts reluctantly and then lurches on down the street.

He unceremoniously leaves Rochester behind.


TITLE: New York City, New York - 2006
Students sit littered like leaves around the well-landscaped hub. A glittery ‘06 Graduation banner hangs above the doorway.

Flyers and bulletin boards line the stonewalled hallway. The fluorescent lights reflect blindly in the polished tile floor.

A door sits ajar, crammed between a bulletin board advertising summer basketball camps and a poster for the spring play, Carousel. The plaque on the door readers: 205 - Mr. Weathers.

Jake, 28 and polished, sits on a stool at the front of the room. His dress shirt and khakis match his clean-shaven face and straight smile. His short hair is combed and contemporary.

Students sit slouched yet attentive, interested in the man sitting before them. They respect him.

He reads from a piece of loose-leaf paper. Similar papers sit on his lap.

The boy was lost. After eighteen years he was
pretty sure he had just taken a wrong turn somewhere
and was now far, far away from where he was supposed to
be at the beginning of adulthood.

A knock at the door interrupts him.

MIRANDA CLARK, a wily woman too beautiful to be a teacher, stands in the doorway, concern plastered across her face.

Jake? Can I speak to you a minute?

“Oooh”s escape from the mouths of several students. Jake casts them a glance of rebuke.

What is it?

Your father’s calling for you. He says it’s important.

Jake and Miranda walk hastily down the hall toward the office.

Don’t take this the wrong way or anything,
but I always thought your parents were dead, honey.

We don’t talk much.


Or ever.

Jake rushes through the door to the front desk. A curly-haired secretary turns the phone toward him. He picks up the receiver and presses it to his ear.


RICHARD WEATHERS’ voice is raspy, stocky; his words belabored, drawn-out.

Jake? It’s your father.

What’s going on?

I’m sorry to interrupt you at school. I don’t have your
home number so I couldn’t call there.
I didn’t want to leave this on a message.

Leave what on a message?

It’s your mother, Jake. She died yesterday.
She’s... she’s dead and I thought you might
want to know.

Jake looks at the phone.

I'm excited about this story. I have a bit more confidence in what I'm doing (which I hope is a good thing and not just fool's ignorance) and I believe in this story I'm telling. The working title is On Becoming Lucid, and it is a collection of memories (while hopefully not completely abusing the flash-back technique) and present-day events that Jake experiences when he goes home for his mother's funeral. It's Forrest Gump meets Garden State meets a Nicholas Sparks movie, and it'll hopefully turn out better than that sounds.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Falling Victim to History

There's a joke among the literary community that everyone's first attempt at writing is often a self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical, melodramatic trainwreck. The joke is it's true.

I made the mistake of thinking I was past this rookie screw-up. However, when writing my first script, I fell right back into the old habits. I basically wrote my life, satirized and fictionalized, and the result was... well, a self-indulgent, semi-autobiographical, melodramatic trainwreck.

My first mistake was trying to "spin" my own life. I've said before that the first step to becoming a good writer is admitting you're a bad one. The second step, in my opinion, is to realize that we are nothing but observers. We're eye-witnesses, the people left behind, and we're here to tell the story - not spin it, not create it. I'm a firm believer that I don't make up stories.. they're there in my subconscious, in my imagination, and I discover them, I watch them, and then I write about them. Whether that's right or not, whether that's not giving myself enough credit or giving me just a little bit too much, I don't know. But I believe it wholeheartedly, and my most successful attempts at prose have been when I embrace this idea and go from there.

Storytellers are here to relay the stories, and that's it. I'm not saying not to find your voice - we all have different ways we describe things or structure a tale. But it's important not to spin your story. We see too much spinning in the media and in bad novels already. If you find yourself forcing a character to do something or say something, or forcing a situation, you've made a big mistake. You have to trust your characters when they show you where they want to go.

It's not always going to make you comfortable. You may spend six hours on a paragraph of a story simply because you're not comfortable with where your character is taking you. But it's in these moments that you can trust that you've got a pretty good story going here because your characters are thinking for themselves.

I didn't do that when I wrote my script. I forced things, I forced actions, and I was left with a contrived version of my own life. And trust me, no one wants to read that, or see it on screen.

So I offer you a piece of advice. Save the autobiography until the grey hair and arthritis is kicking in.

Monday, October 30, 2006

New Challenges

Along with writing stories and poetry, I have been wandering off into different fields of writing. One medium that I've been trying to tackle lately is scripwriting. Now, I'm the world's biggest amateur at the moment. I'm still learning all the ins and outs of the process (thank God for programs like Final Draft, which I heavily recommend if you're just getting started). But it's definitely a very fun experience.

I thought I would struggle at first with actually filling an entire script (They say you should shoot for around 100-120 pages, since 1 page is supposed to translate to 1 minute on screen), but it's actually been surprisingly easy.
Noah is driving on the highway. Dawn is sitting in the passenger seat beside him fiddling with her cellphone. Keli is in the backseat. Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker is on the radio.

Noah, can’t we put something better on?


Come on, pleaaase? I’m supposed to be the
one getting her way here.

Keli, my dear, I would put something better on if
it existed. But this is Zeppelin. Better music
doesn’t exist.

You’re so gay.

Noah’s not gay, Keli. He’s just a hippie.

Doesn’t that make him sort of gay?

No, just sort of socially deficient.

Hey, I’m sitting right here!

Noah reaches over and turns the radio up a little bit. Dawn just chuckles and goes back to texting on her phone. Keli slouches back in her seat.

I liked you better when you listened to N’Sync.

I never listened to N’Sync.

Oh you are such a liar. You had their pocket folders.

You just keep quiet.

I told you he was gay.

I can make you walk, you know. I am driving this car.

You wouldn’t do that to me.

Noah switches lanes quickly and starts to reduce his speed as he veers off toward the shoulder.


The script doesn't have a good working title at the moment, at least not one I'm inclined to share. The story is about the many ways that we try to grow up as kids, and the wreckage we leave behind in the process.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Curse of the Red Pen

The rewriting process is a true test of one's own awareness, I think. I've always thought that the first step to becoming a good writer is admitting you're a bad one. There's no easier way to take that step than reading over your previous work and finding all the things wrong with it. The Predicament of Sarah Mitchell is my first full-length story that I've completed that I had any real confidence in, or that I believe holds any substance. It has been quite a chore rewriting.

The precipitance with which the thought struck him rocked Seth momentarily. He stood inanimate, breathless, as his mind struggled to wrap itself around what had just been thrown before it. It was absurd, it was ludicrous, and most of all, impossible. His heart was wiser and it screamed up at him to toss this completely derisory idea from his mind and retain some sense of dignity. And yet still it persisted like a ravenous cancer in his senses, clawing away at his reality and deafening him with its cacophonous howl.

His fingertips felt cold. There was a small, sharp pain beneath his abdomen. He grimaced slightly and put one dry hand to the area. It felt as if something was pressing tightly against his trachea and he struggled for his first breath in nearly half a minute. All his thoughts were converging between his eyes and his forehead ached with twinges of lightning pain. He knew he couldn’t last much longer in this state, fighting against reality. He was struggling to tell his mind that the sky wasn’t blue, that the grass wasn’t green, and his mind wasn’t buying it. Sooner or later he would have to give in or his mind would break or his body would fall apart.

He rapidly looked for an escape but if there was one his mind was too preoccupied with its recent epiphany to notice it. There was no way of not knowing. There was no way of feigning ignorance.

He turned his head, a motion that felt a lot like twisting the rusted knob of a garden faucet, and looked into her precarious green eyes.
The above passage was originally one paragraph, full of run-on sentences, and lots of the same words. I struggle a lot with description in my writing (which is a reason I think I like poetry and script-writing so much - less dependence on solid, hardcore description) and my rough drafts always show that.

If you ever need to be humbled, just go write something, stick it in a drawer, then read it again in a week. Just try it and get back to me.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

...Is A Long Road Indeed

I got questions from a few of you that were a little bit confused about why my poem was rather unsettling and I claimed I had been inspired by beautiful scenery. Let me try to explain a bit... The entire time we were riding through the mountains, I kept trying to think of people I wanted to share the moment with. A number of people went through my mind, most of whom I dismissed with different thoughts. One person imparticular went through my mind and so I started to write about her.

Now, for a little bit more. I was driving back from Fairborn today when I heard someone say the word 'past' on the radio. The line 'He's sick of paying for her past' came through my mind, and that's where this poem came from. It's pretty wild where inspiration can be found.

He's sick of paying for the past men in her life
She's tired of him not being her type
He's fed up with always being disappointed
She's frustrated with always being so disjointed
He's sick of playing the martyr in this play
She's unable to get past being betrayed
He's tired of constantly having to make her believe
She's so goddamn afraid of being deceived
He's after a woman who will always be around
She's after men who will always let her down
He's desperate for her to be his salvation
She's afraid she's nothing more than damnation

This next one is a little long.

I’m a sucker for the spiritual and anything quite lyrical
And I’ve got a knack for nailing everything satirical
I drink hot chocolate instead of coffee and I don’t smoke
And I’m the master of the dramatic; I always go for broke
I’m absolutely full of love and not afraid to give it up
I was the first to toss change in that poor man’s paper cup

I’m frighteningly good at lying straight to your face
And making you feel safe in my dangerous embrace
I know all the right word plays to make you melt inside
I know just how to make you throw all my sins aside
I plan on leaving you with you cracked and shattered
I know just how to make you think that you really mattered

I’m uncomfortably confident in my treacherous deceit
I’m positively certain that you will find me sweet
I’ll make sure that you remember everything I say
And have hopeful dreams of me when I've gone away
I’ll leave you hanging on my every line and phrase
I plan on making you love me in the worst possible ways

Monday, October 23, 2006

The Long Road Ahead

I wrote this in my head (and then jotted down bits and pieces on my cellphone) while we drove through some of the most beautiful scenery I've ever seen in my life. It's said too often, but I truly felt like I stepped right into a painting. It was so goddamn inspiring; it was surreal.

You're so full of silver-tongued lies
and your facades of maturity and faithfulness
are as convincing as your eyes.

You're so full of doubt and anxiety
and your shortcomings are intoxicatingly
lacking in class and propriety.

I broke down your walls with guiltless ease
and I made sure you'd always remember me
with my hands between your knees.

I made sure to leave you bruised and battered
because that's the only way to be sure
that it ever really mattered.

We know better than to be optimistic
because we've watched this burn before
and we're both so fatalistic.

We know better than to let this occur
because we know it won't have the pain
that we both obviously prefer.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Three Beautiful Things

1. Stepping gingerly into my sleeping niece's room in the morning and rubbing her back as she slowly wakes, then having her latch onto me as I lift her up and carry her downstairs. I've never felt bigger in my life.

2. My mother, completely free of disease and pain (if only for a moment), kissing my father on the cheek in a crowded Red Lobster bar.

3. The touched look on my sister's face after having our somewhat dejected older brother call her on her birthday and tell her that he loves her.