27 September 2009

Forgive me, Father...

We screenwriters are a funny breed. We’re awfully good about telling what we do well - we have to, in order to compete. The DIY generation has cornered the market on self-promotion.

What we’re not so great about is sharing what we don’t do well. God forgive the writer who admits to needing help in an area. Oh, the horror! The horror! Imperfection is seen as weakness, which translates to failure in the psyche of all things Hollywood. If we can’t discuss our weaknesses, we cannot improve them, so the problem becomes one of self-perpetuation, a Sisyphean-like existence, pushing the boulder of mediocrity up that hill, day in, day out, only to have it barreling down, crushing us under its weight, and then we start the task all over again.

In baseball, we revere players, who miss the ball seven times out of ten, with celebrity endorsements and multi-million dollar contracts. Why, then, are we so hard on artists?

I was working on my for hire yesterday, and began to ponder this quirk of very human nature. I went into shower (my method for generating the aha! moment), and realized that the solution might, just might, be absolution through confession.

Think about it – how much less powerful something is, once it is out there. To name it is to claim it, and by claiming it, you become the master instead of the slave.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is no Daniel Day-Lewis (please don’t ask me to discuss his politics, I’ll never be able to shut up). That being said, early in his career, he was able to identify his weaknesses, and then put forth Herculean effort, through hard work and discipline, to overcome these obstacles, and, by doing so, propelled himself into arguably one of the biggest box office draws of the latter part of the 20th century. He knew his dialect was unintelligible; he knew he could not act. He put in time – up to four hours a day – refining his speech and his skills, and it paid off.

All writers have talent. They would not be drawn to the craft if they did not. That being said, talent alone cannot sustain you. It’s the work, the hard work put into the craft, which distinguishes writer A (sales, hires and options) from writer B (still trying to complete script 1).

So, confession time. What is your weakness? What muscles need more flexing?

For me, it is a specific form of dialog, usually found in confrontation scenes. I find that, in my early drafts, I write these scenes with on the nose dialog. Absent of subtext and glaringly awful.

Within the rewrite process, I am slowly able to identify these moments, and cull through them, searching for the textual and sub-textual meaning behind each interchange. It is hard and it is frustrating. It is work. I can spend countless hours polishing a half page scene. I ride an emotional roller-coaster with these moments, often questioning my existence, my mental health, and why the f*ck I got into this crazy business in the first place.

That being said, there is nothing better when you have the breakthrough, when the great Aha! hits you like a ton of bricks. It’s better than chocolate. It’s better than cheese. And, if you create your Aha! moments as I do - in the shower - you’ll be clean and fresh as a daisy.

Confession time. What are your weaknesses? What muscles do you need to work out more? What process do you use to make this happen?

A friend and writer, Dan G., turned me onto a random logline generator.  He uses it to issue weekly challenges on his Yahoo! Group; I have begun to use it each morning to generate a logline and write a 1-2 page scene, dialog heavy, as an early morning workout. I allow myself one hour to write and refine, and then put the pages away until the next morning, so I may see what worked – and what didn’t – and use that data to help me move forward in the craft.

Writing is an art, and a craft. It is always in motion, never stagnant. The day you cease to learn, is the day you might consider a new day job.

~ HRH, Princess Scribe

TODAY'S ASSIGNMENT: Commit to your craft. Spend at least one hour each day flexing the muscles that need it. Do this the entire week - every day. Emails, message boards and blogging do not count.

16 September 2009

Is Story Dead?

1101660408_400April 8, 1966 marked Time magazine's publishing of the provocative cover titled “Is God Dead?” spawning a knee-jerk reaction style of debate that swept through the country like a plague. Rather than apply critical thinking to this incendiary yet thought provoking piece of journalism, the masses reacted with hysterics, encouraged by social conservatives, already unsettled by the threat of change then sweeping through the country.

The title was a simple reimagining of Frederick Nietzsche’s statement, “Gott ist tott”, appearing in a significant number of his philosophical works. From “The Madman”:

“God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?”

Of course, what the ill-informed public did not grok was that Nietzsche did not mean for his statement to be interpreted in a literal sense; what he was expressing was that the “God” of the times – religion – was no longer a source of subjective wisdom.

Today, I would like for you to consider a new reimagining of this phrase. Is Story dead?

Consider the following quotes:

“When storytelling declines, the result is decadence.” ~ Aristotle

‘Deprive children of stories and you leave them unscripted, anxious stutterers in their actions as in their words.’ ~ Alasdair MacIntyre

Each year, over 50,000 scripts are registered at the Writers Guild of America, west. By including those scripts that have not been registered, the number is easily doubled. Each year, Hollywood spends over 1 billion dollars on story development.

Out of those numbers of scripts, less than 500 make it to the screen. Out of that number, less than a dozen are films of any true quality. Out of that dozen, we are told that five of these films (next year, it will be ten) are any good. Out of that five, we select one to represent what we believe is truth and excellence in storytelling. That one choice is often held up to the candle, to debate and discuss ad nauseum until the whole cycle begins again.

Technology has swept through Hollywood, like a raging inferno, incinerating each and every standard in its path. The upside to this is that film has never been less expensive – or more accessible – to produce. The price for this discount ticket is mighty – the devolution of story. Language has been reduced to a series of representational text bytes – “ruok” “wn2ply?” - and the enchanting “ull alw remain n my hart!”

This devaluation of language is then expressed in a devaluation of story, as language is the means by which we express story. The box office dependent story factory churns and regurgitates a series of half-truths, vomited up at the local Cineplex night after night. The public is so desperate for truthful storytelling that they then turn to the faux truth of the reality show – a double lie, as there is as much reality in THE BACHELOR and JON AND KATE as there is in DAYS OF OUR LIVES.

The societal implications of this decline are beyond disturbing. If art is a reflection of society, then, lords and ladies of the court, we are officially fucked. If art is a reflection of society, then we are a society of vapid, vain, entitled, thrill-seeking sociopaths with no need for change, or for transformation, because we’re working the system pretty damn well. If art is a reflection of life, we are, by large, a violent tribe, hell-bent on self-destruction, but not before we mow a few (insert perjorative describing the enemy here) down. If art is a reflection of life, then women are little more than big-breasted, long legged nymphs who can master martial art while giving the best blowjob G.I. Joe ever had. Violence is worshipped; rape is seen as a form of recreational sex, and scantily clad prepubescents assure us that there is nothing coming between them and their Calvins.

The above diatribe in mind, in combination with Nietzsche's musings, forces me to assert that yes, story is dead.

And yet ... while I do not embrace religion, I do believe that all may not be lost, that story can indeed be resurrected.

And so, my dear scribes, I challenge you to be the hero/heroine of Story. Take this challenge as a Call to Action on your journey. Understand the relationship of story to life. Accept responsibility for your writings – ask yourself, “Why am I writing this story? Is it necessary?”- and most importantly, “What is its effect upon society? Does this story need to be told/made?”

Last, but not least, get educated. I recently attended a storytelling seminar, filled with screenwriters, novelists and playwrights. Out of approximately 200 attendees, less than 12 had read Aristotle’s Poetics, and less than that number had more than a passing acquaintance with Homer’s The Odyssey. A few more knew Hamlet - one young woman asked me “Wasn’t that the one with Mel Gibson?”


Imagine a doctor, a surgeon, who decided that the study of medicine “got in their way.” This doctor decides that s/he can read a couple of books, and pretty much just wing it. No need for Latin, no need for anatomy, virology or understanding the development of antiseptic practices. S/he scrubs in and points to a row of surgical instruments:

Give me that thingy over there.

Story is God in our society, for story informs us of the deepest, darkest truths about our culture.

Do you want to be known as the writer who killed God? Will you be soulless bastard who made baby Jesus cry?

I hope not.

~ HRH, The Princess Scribe

WRITING ASSIGNMENT – take out your most trite and trivial tale you’ve ever written – and rewrite it. This time, give it meaning and truth.

SUGGESTED BOOKS – Poetics by Aristotle, The Odyssey by Homer, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, Story by Robert McKee and the collected works of Jane Austen and Robert Heinlen.