Good Grief…

•November 23, 2011 • 3 Comments

Halloween is my favorite holiday. After that? Thanksgiving. No matter what social media account of mine you follow, you’ve undoubtedly seen my posts about food and drink. I love food. I love beer. I love wine. I love adult spirits. And Thanksgiving is a great holiday for me to revel in just about all of them. A day of food, drink and football. How brilliant. Thus, I tend to take the Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving off to finalize my menu and shop accordingly. However, I hate crowds. Hate. Them. With a passion. When I find myself trapped in a crowd, I envision, with utter bliss, cutting my way through them with a chainsaw. So, I plan my Thanksgiving grocery shopping around the schedule I deem to be crowd aggravation free. Pretty much right when the store opens.

I had this morning planned perfectly. The kids and I would take my mother (who lives with us) to work, we’d use her car to go to Fred Meyer (aka Kroger in the rest of the nation) and pick up the few items I’d need from there, then we’d swing by New Seasons (a local/better version of Whole Foods) and pick up our organic, chemical free turkey, then we’d kick back and watch a flick and fold laundry whilst sipping Spiced Cider. Puuuuurfect.

I wake up. It’s windy. Pouring enough rain to drown a fish. I decide against going for a run and plan to do 30 minutes of My Fitness Coach on the Wii instead. In fact — I’ll make it a combined father and kids work out! I’ll wear the little buggers out so they’re less squirrely! I smile like the Grinch at my bitchin’ thinkin’. Sooo frakkin’ smart you are, Sir. A Child Wear-Out Scheme disguised as “quality time”. They don’t make ’em as smart as you anymore bucko. Not. At. All.

Despite the naysayers (aka my spouse) the kids do exactly as I asked them to do the night before by getting up early and getting dressed quickly (in your face!). They are reporting for duty and ready to go right on time, Sir! I send my mother and the kids out to the car as I gather my coupons, my lists, my wallet, my phone. I throw-on a hoodie and jeans. Yeah, it’s pouring rain, but the rain coat can be a pain. I’ll be fine. All right — I’m ready to go!

The back door opens and my mother walks in and says, in her perpetual I Told You So Voice (because the world is always plotting against her), “Happy Thanksgiving! The tire’s flat!” Rather than thinking about the tire and the problem it’s going to pose to my well laid plans, my immediate thought is that I bet my mother couldn’t wait to say that line. I bet she even worked on her delivery whilst walking back up the driveway, trying to figure out the tone that has the best chance of convincing my wife and I that she’s been right all along and the world is, in fact, plotting against her constantly. Twenty-four-seven. A cabal of “they” plotting… scheming… snickering with pee-pee dance glee at the chaos “they” are going to cause.

I don’t take the bait. In the past, I have been quick-tempered about these kind of things. I’m not spontaneous. I hate surprises. I like plans. I like schedules. I don’t like the unexpected or chaos factors. But as of late, I have tried to go with the flow a lot better. With my wife serving her first year as a Vice Principal where work hours and responsibilities have increased significantly, I’ve had to take on more of the load on the home front and that shit doesn’t exactly go smoothly no matter how well you have it planned. I’ve been forced outside of my comfort zones and have, I feel, rolled with it quite well with little outburst of temperament, if any. I’ve tried to be her rock at home, leaving her little to worry about so she can just come home and relax. So far, so good, if I do say so myself.

The flat tire. Fine. I calmly change plans. My wife will take my mother to work, then I’ll move the car into the driveway and change out the tire. Easy peasy. It’ll delay my plans for about an hour, but whatever. That’s life. No biggie.

I move the car into the drive. It’s the rear passenger tire. Very flat with a brand new roofing screw sticking out of it. No doubt picked up from the office parking lot where roofers have been doing repair work. I open the rear of the car to get the jack out and am greeted with a large box of clothes and toys I’ve been meaning to take to Goodwill. Okay — we’ll do that today, too. I take the box out of the car. There’s a moment of heave, the sense of lifted weight, and then a sense of give followed by the immediate clatter of plastic crashing onto the cement. The bottom of the box has given out, the toys scattering across the driveway like rabid mice; tinker toys, stray doll clothes, teeny tiny farm animals, stray army men, stray firemen, battered hot wheels. Great. Okay. No big deal, I’ll just get the kids out here help me pick this up after I change the tire. Wait — bad idea. Because if I do that then every freaking toy is suddenly going to become their “favorite!” toys ever. Screw it. I’ll just… yeah. Fine. Whatever. Let’s just get the tire changed first. It’s pouring out here.

I locate the lug wrench. Um… where’s the car jack? Anyone? Anyone? I distinctly remember when my mother purchased this used car, asking the dealer if all the car jack and spare tire materials were in the car. “Absolutely,” he said. Well, absolutely not exactly. Lug wrench? Yup. Jack? No. Insert heavy sigh here. Okay… Pamela and my mother just left, she can just swing back by and I’ll use the jack from our car.

Pamela comes back to the house, and whilst retrieving our jack, I ask if she has noticed that, thus far, I appear to be even-tempered and have not said one curse word. She begrudgingly admits I am unusually calm considering the fly in my ointment. The sabot in my machine. The cluster in my fuck.

She heads to work. I proceed to jack up the car. Aaaaand the jack doesn’t go high enough. While I could probably remove the fla, there is no way I’ll be able to slide the fully inflated spare on. Okay, what now? Think man! Gerbrock! A car repair shop around the corner on Killingsworth. They’ve worked on my mother’s old car (which had a jack by the way) multiple times, and recently worked on this one. Good people we found through the Car Talk website. I give them a ring. They think they may have a jack I can use. I gather up the kids and, in the pouring rain and raging wind, we start walking over. Along the way the wind turns our umbrella inside out, nearly sending Eleanor tumbling to the ground in the process. Fuck it. We don’t need the umbrella. We’re Portlanders. Not Californians who go into panic mode once the first drop of rain hits the windshield.

We arrive at the mechanic, cold, soaked. He’s actually doesn’t have a normal car jack we can use, but we can certainly use one of the hydraulic jacks they use in the garage. About the size of a vacuum cleaner, it’s about fifteen to twenty pounds and works on any vehicle. I offer him my driver’s license to hold and a credit card. He waves it off. “Naw, that’s fine. You’re a neighbor.” Wow. Okay. I mean — wow. I promise to have it back in no more than 40 minutes. The kids and I trudge home in the wind and rain. The jack has wheels, but pulling it along the sidewalk proves to be tough going, so I just carry it all the way.

I get home. As I start jacking up the car — “Hey,” Eleanor says. “What are all these toys doing in the driveway?”

Oh dear.

“Is that –?”

“Get in the house,” I spew as I finally get the car propped up just the right height.

“But –”

“We’ll talk about it later. House. Now. Before your toes turn black and we have to cut them off.”

“What?”

“Frost bite Eleanor!” Dominic hollers. “We’ll get it from the wind and the rain!”

“That’s right,” I confirm. “You’ll also get sick. Sick with no toes on Thanksgiving would suck. A lot. Go!” They run inside. Ten minutes later — VIOLA! The spare is on! Thank Crom!

All right, now all I have to do is toss the jack in the car, pick up all the toys in the driveway, then we’ll drop off the jack at the mechanic’s and head to the store and we’ll only be — oh — two hours behind schedule. Not bad considering.

However, The jack won’t fit in the car. It has a loooong handle that doesn’t collapse and won’t allow me to close the hatch. I try the back seat. Ditto. Okay, I am not walking this thing all the way back to the mechanic with two kids in the wind and the rain. One of the kids is just going to have to ride with this thing on their lap and a window rolled down for the handle to stick out. Simple. They’ll get a little wet, but we’re already soaked so, whatever.

I start gathering the toys, grabbing a paper grocery bag containing clothes. The bag, soaking wet, comes apart. The wet clothes plop onto the wet concrete along with a bottle of — GLITTER!

Yes.

Glitter.

The cap of which was either not fastened, or broken, or never existed in the first place. And now the wet clothes, and toys, and my wet pants, and wet hoodie, and soaked shoes, are covered with glitter and I now look like a fawking homeless TWILIGHT vampire in a Steelers hat. Groovy.

And it’s at this point I start to think about PLANES, TRAINS & AUTOMOBILES which we watched for family movie night the other evening. Because what is happening today would be utterly hilarious in a John Hughes film. Clark Griswald is having a stellar day in every VACATION movie compared to what’s going on here. If an audience were watching this, this would be high comedy! Not so much in real life.

“KIIIDS!” I holler. No response. “KIIIIIIIIIIIIDDDDSSSS!!!!” Cherub faces appear in the window. Who? us? I wave them out. The wet ragamuffins drag their soaked behinds out. I lay down the law. “Have I yelled?” They shake their heads. “Have I said mean words?” Shake. “Do we all want to keep it that way?’ Nods. “Then here’s what’s going to happen… I’m going to go inside and get two trash bags… we are going to pick up these toys, and the clothes, and we are NOT going to discuss keeping any of them. Doing so will result in very bad things. You hear me? VERY bad. Comprende?”

“Um,” Eleanor starts.

I glare at her. “What?”

“Why were the toys in the box?” she asks.

“Because you haven’t played with them in forever, most of them are your baby toys, you’re not a baby and they should go to babies who will play with them.”

“Oh.”

I stare at her in expectation of her inevitable, patented Eleanor retort, and instead get: “It’s really raining a lot.”

“Yeah,” I reply. “A lot.”

“Come on, Eleanor,” Dominic says as he starts picking up the clothes and toys. As I head into the house I notice the front driver’s side tire is incredibly low… sticking out of it? A fawking roofing screw. Really? Two flat tires?! Really???!!! And just as I’m about to tear off into the loudest, fiercest, most well-earned onslaught of profanity, I think about… Dominic and Eleanor picking up wet clothes and toys covered in glitter in the driveway… and the fit they did not throw because they wanted to be helpful… the restraint they showed because they knew it would make the situation worse did not deserve to be rewarded by my going off on a tirade anyway. I was not, I firmly decided, going to be my father.

Okay — the tire is not entirely flat. It’s obviously a slow leak otherwise it would be flat already like the rear tire. There’s still time. I give the kids new directive: the toys MUST/HAVE TO/NO CHOICE BUT TO GET THEM INTO the bags REALLY FAST otherwise we’re screwed! If we get them picked up fast, we can race to the mechanic’s and maybe they can fix both tires. So, together, cold, wet and beleaguered, we gather the wet clothes and toys and race to the mechanic’s. I return the jack. Apologizing for taking so long. “I wasn’t worried,” the owner responds. I inquire about tire repair. I REALLY want to give them my business for being so kind. They don’t do tire repair, unfortunately. But, he has a tire pump and can add air to the front tire which will get me to a tire repair shop.

We roll into Les Schwab… soaked… cold… hungry… I know Les Schwab repairs flats for free, but two flats? Not likely. We head over to Subway for a healthy breakfast. It only takes them an hour to fix the tires. No charge. “Really?” I ask. “Two flats and no charge?” The repairman shakes his head. “Naw. Just consider us when you get your next set.”

I gather the kids, tell them it’s finally time to go home. We’ll toss our clothes in the dryer and do at least half of the running around we were going to do.

As we head to the door, relieved at the thought of getting out of our soaked, cold clothes very soon, Eleanor laughs out loud. “What?” I ask her.

“This has been the worst day EVER!” she says with a smile.

“No kidding,” Dominic affirms.

I think about the kindness of the folks at Gerbrock, the kindness of the folks at Les Schwab, and the fact Eleanor is still able to laugh after the day we had, and I tell her “Not really. We got one heck of a story our of it didn’t we?”

“Yeah!”

Indeed.

Where The Monsters Live

•July 4, 2011 • 2 Comments

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.” — Graham Green, The Power and The Glory

Growing up in Cave Junction, Oregon during the 1970s and the 1980s is like being in an exclusive club. Those of us who lived that twenty-year span in the Illinois Valley experienced things nobody will ever experience there again. Hence the bond we all share. There’s an unspoken language between us. A sense of knowing. A kinship forged by time and place no one else can share. The town is in our blood. Whether we like it or not.

It was my twenty-fifth high school reunion this July 4th weekend. I had not planned on going. I have a love/hate relationship with Cave Junction. While I cherish the memories of my childhood there, those fond recollections are also riddled with emotional scars. Add in the fact the town has not changed for the better… going back isn’t exactly high on my list of priorities.

Cave Junction was a timber town back in the day; home to loggers, mill workers, truck drivers, smoke jumpers; if you owned a store, a restaurant, a gas station, or a beauty salon (as my mother did) it was timber dollars that kept you afloat and put food on your table. The town was robust back then. A near picture-perfect example of small town America.

The environmentalist movement murdered Cave Junction in the mid 1980s. It was a slow, cruel death. The kind only progress can provide. The corpse remains today, riddled with crime, unemployment and apathy like so much maggots. It hurts to see, especially in contrast to the memories of what once was.

Yeah… I wasn’t going to this reunion. I’d been to the twentieth. That was enough. Not to mention it was going to be on the heels of a trip to Los Angeles where my short film INSIDE THE HOUSE was slated to have its theatrical premiere at the Dead Flesh Feast Film Festival in Hollywood, and I really didn’t feel like being on the road two weekends in a row. It was a good excuse not to go anyway.

Then I get a direct message on my Twitter account from fellow Cave Junction alum, Tess Thompson Hardwick. “You’re going right? To the reunion?“ Sigh… while Tess was not part of my graduating class, we have history. We’re both members of an even more exclusive club, the Illinois Valley High School drama troupe known as the Harlequins. Also extinct as I understand it. We spent countless rehearsal and production hours together, we Harlequins. I handled Special Make-Up FX, lighting and props for two years, and was asked to return a year after I graduated to help out on a rather ambitious production of Dracula. I said yes in an instant. Tess played “Reinfield”. That production, believe it or not, is still talked about in that town to this day. Not surprising considering the amount of blood I spilled on that stage.

I wanted to be a special make-up effects artist back then, inspired by the likes of Tom Savini, Rick Baker, Dick Smith, Mark Shostrom and Rob Bottin. The fearless Harlequin leader, drama teacher Rick Ferris, only gave me one directive: do what you do. Oh yeah baby…

Completely inspired by Tom Savini’s amazing book on Special Effects Make-Up, Grand Illusions, I used a great number of sleight-of-hand techniques to create things like a cross that actually shot “steam” when pressed to the forehead of a vampire, stakes which drove through the bottoms of coffins

Dracula Special Effects Props

spilling blood directly on stage (the first ever “splatter zone”?) and a staking of Vlad Dracula in the finale right before the eyes of the audience. After each production the stage looked like the floor of a slaughter house. Word got out about how good the production was, how bloody, and we ended-up adding an extra show. It was the most profitable show the Harlequins had ever put on. And one of the best times I’d ever had on a production.

Tess and I lost contact over the years, found one another on Facebook a few years ago like so many do these days and immediately reconnected when we discovered we were both writers and live only three hours apart; she in Seattle, I in Portland. I would also later call on Tess’ fine acting talents for my short film.

In response to her question about the reunion, “I don‘t think so,” I write.

“Why not?“ she immediately shoots back. “It’s your 25th reunion! I’m going. I’d like to see you there.”

Though it wasn‘t her class reunion, Tess has exploded on the literary scene with her debut novel Riversong, and it was decided Alumni Weekend in Cave Junction (which is a big deal there every summer) would be a great stop on her book tour. She and I had been talking about getting our families together at some point and what better opportunity than alumni weekend in our home town? Sigh…

I tell her I’ll mull it over. Look at my calendar, etc. Cave Junction? Ugh. Maybe we can do lunch on her swing through Portland or something.

A week goes by. I haven’t made a decision. Then while out on my jog one morning, it strikes me that both Tess and I have written signature works which take place in Cave Junction. Her novel, Riversong, is set in the fictional Southern Oregon town of River Valley. My horror screenplay, HUNTING GROUNDS, takes place in the fictional Southern Oregon town of Canyon Junction (my name slightly less veiled). Her novel has been published, and my screenplay has been optioned twice, and is the first screenplay I send out when someone asks for a writing sample. I’ve gotten a number of meetings as a result. Very important when trying to move up the Hollywood ladder.

I smile at the thought. At the hold the town apparently has on us. One so strong we both just had to write about it. And it gets me thinking about the hours I spent in that house on Laurel Road, not too far from Laurel Cemetery, pounding away on an Olympia electric typewriter with an “E“ key that stuck. A solipsistic existence I reveled in.

It was just me and my mother in that house. When the economy went into the shitter my father hit the road to, of all places, Zaire. He took an over seas construction gig with a company called Morrison and Knudsen. He didn’t have to. He’d found a job as a janitor with the school district and if he had stuck with it he could have retired with a decent pension. But, I suspect there were other issues at hand. My father was a drinker. A philanderer. My mother becoming less tolerant of it. So he hit the road “for the family”. Riiight.

My sister, who was five years older, got her parole papers when the clock struck midnight on her eighteen birthday. My mother had rules. My sister wasn’t down with the plan. She bolted. Leaving me holding my mother’s emotional bag for the next twenty some years.

I was a pudgy kid. Not athletic. No confidence. All of which is bad enough. But when you throw in a mother who broke into tears at a moments notice (which happened a lot) it paints a pretty ugly picture. I spent a lot of time in my room. And it was in that room Graham Greene’s door opened for me.

Stephen King was exploding on the scene at the time. I discovered Fangoria Magazine. We got a VHS player. Horror became my vice. The Olympia typewriter the key which unlocked the door to the other side. I wrote short story after short story. Non stop. Werewolves, zombie dogs, cannibal caretakers, a twin brother living in the walls of the house he grew up in killing whoever tries to buy it… all those monsters came to life out there in the sticks. It was fertile ground, those two acres. Nights are pitch black in the country. And in that suffocating darkness I found my inspiration. It’s where my monsters lived.

I sucked at asking girls out in high school. That lack of confidence thing coming in to play. My feeble attempts were always met with the friendship tip. So be it. I had my monsters. Whenever I needed them all I had to do was venture out into the night…and they would come and keep me company. When my parents finally divorced and the house was sold, I remember wondering if I’d be able to write anywhere else. As writers we get so used to routine and ritual. We’re kind of superstitious that way. Where would I find my inspiration?

Back on the jog, I decide I’ll go to the reunion. I have other business to tend to anyway. My grandmother, who remained in the valley even though the rest of the family had left, had finally passed away a couple years ago. There were things in the house she wanted me to have. Things my father thought I should take. Screw it. I’d kill two birds with one stone I thought.

I pack the wife and kids into the van and we shuffle down I-5 to Sothern Oregon. I share my childhood memories with my children. They are fascinated for the most part. The kind of fascination only children under the age of ten can have as they try to make sense of time, their place in it, the fact life existed before they were conceived, and try to picture you, their parent, as a child.

Tess and I hook-up with the rest of our classmates. It’s like no time has passed at all. While we’ve grown into our adult features, when we see one another, I think we all still see the teens we once were. We certainly behaved like those energetic kids. And it was on this night I finally made peace with Cave Junction. Rather than hate what the town has become, I should feel proud to be a part of this group. The memories we share will not be shared by anyone else in that town that comes after us. Ever. Thus our exclusive club status.

Before heading back to Portland, back to my current life with a wife, three kids and a mortgage, I swing by the house on Laurel Road. It looks like shit now, I have to say. And as I cruise by I feel nothing. Sure, there’s a flash of what once was. I see my ghost sitting on the front porch at night just… listening. But there is no longing. My fears of being unable to live and write anywhere else were, of course, unfounded. The fact I wrote HUNTING GROUNDS in its entirety while sitting in my back yard in Portland one warm July day — just me a legal pad, a pencil and a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon — says it all. The monsters never really lived in that darkness on those two acres… they live in my blood… just like the town I grew up in…

The Over Confident Writer

•May 14, 2011 • Leave a Comment

As a writer, you absolutely have to write with confidence. Have to. If you don’t, the reader will see your hesitation, pick up on your repetitiveness and will not have confidence that you know how to tell a story worth reading. Confidence can only come from writing, writing, writing. But something else can come from writing, writing, writing as well.

Over confidence.

Huh? Wha-?

Yeah. It happens. I suffered from it for a year. The first step was admitting I had a problem.

Like a cancer, this problem rears its head slowly. You figure you’ve been doing this writing thing long enough, have had a smattering of success, and now know this schtick like the Playstation/X Box/PS3 controller you’ve had in your hand for months now while you were “mulling over the next project”. When you finally decide it’s time to get back to work, you start by breaking rules to save time. Little ones at first. Like establishing your log line. “Bah — I’ll figure that out when it comes time to pitch it, market it or when my agent asks for it,” you tell yourself. In the past, you would spend time refining the idea, putting together a concise log line, then send that log line to fellow writer friends you trust, your agent, etc. and get feed back on it. But this time, you feel you’ve been doing this long enough and really don’t need to go through those trusted filters anymore. Better to just impress the shit out of them with the completed script. Besides, you want them to read it fresh! No preconceived notions!

Note carding scenes or banging out a beat sheet is the next rule to go. You know structure sooo well by now it’s instinct! Plus the idea is sooo good it will practically write itself! Why waste time? Let’s just start writing! Note carding, beat sheets, outlines — that’s shit is for baby writers. Not pros like you.

Then, after taking nearly twice as long to write your project (because you didn’t troubleshoot your story via an outline, it took much longer to figure out what the problems were and fix them; if you ever do get it done that is), you decide to send it off to your agent or start marketing it right away. Wait — what about the rewrite? Wha? No, no, no. That’s for novices who make a lot of mistakes. You’re a pro baby! You’ve avoided the mistakes that plague newbies. Rewrite… whatever…

And then… the feedback comes in. If you are lucky enough to have good, honest writer friends who care about you and will not allow you to send out something bad, they will tell you what you have written is utter shit. “Well, they just didn’t get it,” you tell yourself. “Surely my other writer friend will understand it. He’s a much better writer than writer friend #1!

Then, writer friend #2 tells you he/she isn’t feeling it either. And, by the way, did you know that a famous writer has already sold a similar project? It comes out next year. Wish I had known you were working on this, could have saved you the time.

And then. depression sets in. Because you now realize you have just spent a year (longer most likely) writing utter derivative shit. And then you convince yourself you’ve lost it. Whatever magic you once had that garnered you attention, meetings, etc is gone. Like so much mist.

The reality is, of course, the talent is still there. The work ethic, however, is not.

Writing is hard work. If it were easy everyone would be doing it. And while you were convincing yourself you were a pro and no longer needed to do the things rookies need to do, you managed to make every rookie mistake imaginable.

You pick up the final draft of the project that got you all that attention. Read it. My gosh the words leap off the page! Remember how many times you rewrote those words? The dialogue is so crisp and concise. Remember how overwritten those lines used to be? The structure is so solid. Tight like a drum. Remember when you did your beat sheet and discarded plot elements you realized you didn’t need? Or discovered ways to eliminate characters and combine scenes for greater impact?

The reason pros are pros is because they understand there are no shortcuts. Writing is hard, pain staking, often thankless work, and only those that are willing to do the work succeed and will continue to succeed.

Rules to which there are no exceptions:

Refine your idea to a one sentence log line. Share that log line with trusted writer friends, your agent, people who could care less about your feelings and are far more interested in making sure you don’t waste your time working on something you can’t sell.

Bang out your beat sheet/Outline/Note cards. We’ve all heard about famous writers who say they never work from outlines. They just sit down and go where the story takes them. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. A writer I respect, Joe Eszterhaus, claims he wrote BASIC INSTINCT in 12 days with no real outline. That script sold for $3 Million. Now, I wasn’t there, I have no idea if he’s telling the truth, but, I do know there is a certain value to making people believe that’s how it went down. A value that’s around $4 Million I would say, which is what Paramount paid for his next script, JADE, from an idea he supposedly scribbled out on a single piece of note paper and sent to then studio head Sherry Lansing. Given how both films turned out, I tend to believe BASIC INSTINCT was crafted in a far more traditional way, and JADE was the one he banged-out in 12 days.

Are there writers who can create a masterpiece without an outline? Probably. I can’t prove for certain otherwise. But I’m pretty sure they only became a masterpieces by following the next rule…

Writing is rewriting, dummy. REWRITE YOUR WORK! All first drafts are shit. Period. If you think your first draft is perfect, you’re an idiot and you probably spend a lot of time defending your work. Usually with the following “You just don’t get it.” or “Fucking Hollywood… publishers… they just want the same crap they’ve been churning out… they don’t want ORIGINAL material like mine. It’s too good for them!” Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that in between filling orders at the drive through window. Your manuscript sucks dude. And you’re just too lazy to put in the immense work to make it better.

Yeah, I was stuck here for about a year. I got lazy. Rules didn’t apply to me anymore. I had done this shit long enough to where it was all auto pilot now. Like breathing. I didn’t need to do outline. Note cards? Nah. I know what my scenes are. No worries. Rewrite? Yeah, a little. But not much. I had mulled the idea over enough to where the first draft should be solid.

The only problem was I couldn’t even complete a first draft. I was getting stuck on project after project. Telling myself the problem was the ideas. They were all wrong. And then I sank into depression. I started drinking. A lot.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I realized I needed to do something to get back on track. Find a way to reignite the fire that once burned inside. The something turned out to be film school. And it was there, at the Northwest Film Center, where I was thrust into the role of being a novice behind the camera, learning all these new rules for the visual creative process, that I realized what I had been doing for the past year was bucking the rules of the writing creative process.

They say you’re only allowed to break the rules once you know what they are and understand them. But, sometimes, rules aren’t meant to be broken. They’re rules not because Syd Field, Bob McKee or Blake Snyder say it’s how it should be done, they’re rules because they are essential.

Write with confidence to be certain. But confidence can only be gained by knowing you’ve done the work. Anything else is over confidence, the fodder of ignorance and arrogance. And ultimately only paves a clear path to failure.

Widows, Widowers, Orphans & The Monster In The Room

•March 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

“Jesus Fucking Christ! Can YOU PEOPLE make any MORE noise for Chrissakes?!?!?!?”

“Un-fucking-believable! Really??? REALLY??? You all have to be doing this NOW when I’m trying to write?!?!?!”

Yeah… that’s become a regular scene in my house as of late. Even though I have two “offices” where I write, it seems that both are always the first place everyone wants to be whenever I finally steal time to get writing done. And with the demands of family and life, that’s what it feels like anymore — stealing time. Best laid plans for spending a day writing are, almost without fail, derailed by the needs of others. The result being a grumpy, easily agitated writer who becomes the monster in the room whenever the words “Daaaad?” or “Hey, can you come look at this?” or “The dog just threw up!” are uttered when I’m trying to get writing done.

While it may sound really cool to be married to a creative, do our spouses and families really understand what that means? What a horrible thing we can turn into when that creative beast inside is not fed regularly? Constantly?

In one sense, I feel incredibly guilty when the monster rears it’s ugly head because many have no true understanding of the creative process. They think you can just sit down and start writing and their minor interruptions are no big deal. And, in some cases, that may be true. When the juices are flowing and the road map for your story is as clear as a summer day, those interruptions aren’t too bad. But when you’re still in that words on paper mode, still trying to figure out your story, those interruptions are like a coffin nail; every intrusion a metal spike sealing you inside a wood box, not dead, but very much alive.

And while we the creatives know these feelings all too well, what about the feelings of our families? Our spouses and children are pretty much widows, widowers and orphans when we are “in the zone”. Their lives do not suddenly pause while we are duking it out with the blank page. Our standard replies of “In a minute” and “Just a sec” turn into hours of waiting for them. While we struggle between “ran into the room” versus “rushed into the room” (or maybe he “dashed into the room”) their issues remain unresolved. They still need our attention. Time does not stop for us. Damn it.

I have a lot of guilt about this issue, actually. After my divorce in 1996 it was just me and my daughter, who was five at the time. Being the child in a single parent situation is hard enough, but when that parent is also a creative, needing hours upon hours of time alone with their thoughts, I can imagine the sense of loneliness being overwhelming at times. And I know for certain my “In a minutes” became “Maybe tomorrow” on more than one occasion. Actually, if I’m being honest, it was probably more like several dozen occasions. Sigh… she might as well have been an orphan, honestly.

While many established writers will tell you the solution to this problem is to carve out definite times when you are not to be disturbed, the reality is the dog does not puke on a schedule. The kids do not refrain from hitting one another or spilling something just because you are writing. And while the goddamn phone may not ring all day, you can sure as hell bet it WILL ring when you sit down to write and it WILL be the bank telling you someone has stolen your Debit Card PIN and pulled $400.00 out of your account and, by the way, did you buy $650.00 worth of stereo equipment online at two in the morning from a computer in Mexico City? And if your computer is going to become affected by malware, it WILL be when you finally get everyone out of the house and have made that fresh pot of coffee and had a definite plan of attack for your allotted writing time.

I’ve got no answers here, folks. If you look at the most successful creatives out there a lot of them are divorced, on their second or third marriage, are alcoholics and have terrible relationships with their children…

I suppose, once your career is finally on track and you’re earning a bit of money, you can hire nannies, maids and personal assistants to help you out with the demands of daily life. But at what cost? Privacy? Relationships? Money?

Yes, we absolutely NEED our writing time. If we do not get it, everyone around us pays the price; we’re edgy, snappy, grumpy and pretty much all around miserable fucks to live with. And when we do get it, everyone around us still pays the price with our absence in their lives. I can’t tell you how many family activities I have missed for the sake of writing. I’m sure my wife can, though.

Thing is, as writers we need to remember the world does not stop for us. And the best we can do, I guess, is take advantage of every nanosecond we have to think about writing. In the car, on the elevator, the escalator, the shower. Stop playing fucking Angry Birds on your phone and use the notepad application to make notes about your story. That way when you finally do get a chance to sit down and write you already have a jumping off point going in. I’ve taken to E Mailing PDFs of my screenplays to my place of employment and reading them whenever I get a chance. Then I make notes and send them home via E mail, or I do it in MS Word and print them up at the end of the day.

Like I said, I’ve got no answers here. Yes, some of us are blessed with spouses who understand the need for creative time (I do count myself as lucky in this regard) but, even with their love and support, those intrusions occur and the best we can do, I suppose, is everything we can to keep the monster chained down, that way when our family does need us during our creative time, we do not make them feel as though we resent their presence. I know I’ve done this in the past. And while I don’t have the power to change history, I do have the power to change the future. Which is the most amazing power in the world.

Do You Listen?

•February 11, 2011 • Leave a Comment

The number one question I am asked by those who do not write is: Where do your ideas come from? The answer to this is always complicated because, as fellow writers know, ideas come from a wide variety of places; a news article, a past personal experience, a nugget of an idea combined with ½ teaspoon of truth mixed with ¾ cups of “What if?” Idea inceptions are like snowflakes – they are unique unto themselves.

The second question I am often asked is: Is it true characters talk to you? When you answer yes, the person posing the question usually looks at you as though you’re a bit… touched. This look is usually followed-up with “Really? They REALLY talk to you?” And then you find yourself explaining that while you do not actually sit there and have lengthy conversations with your characters, they do let you know when a story is not working. If something’s wrong with the piece the characters never truly come alive on the page; they never spout their dialogue with any sense of enthusiasm or conviction; your words fit in their mouths like rocks, blocks and cotton socks. More importantly, they never take you by the hand and lead you through the story. Through their story. See, the truth is (honest writers will admit this) writers do not tell the story. The characters do. They are the true authors. Your job, as the wordsmith, is to sit down, shut up, listen and take dictation. And when you try to steer the story in the wrong direction, or force them to do things they do not want to do, they let you know.

Such is the case with my current project, a suspense thriller about a young woman’s bone marrow transplant that goes… er… wrong. In the original draft the main character, Megan, had a boyfriend named Kevin who had been by her side through the entire ordeal. However, the relationship never quite took off in the story. It played flat and no matter how many different ways I rewrote it, while the characters would go through the motions of a relationship it never seemed believable. It came off forced and it was throwing the entire story off track. There was no traction. No momentum. And, worst of all, it wasn’t interesting.

And that’s when Megan told me one morning while on my 5:00 A.M. run – she didn’t need a God damn boyfriend. This was her story damn it. Not their story. This was about her journey through the darkness and Kevin, though a well intentioned character, was slowing her down. Slowing her story down. Every scene needs to move the plot forward and pausing for this relationship crap was not allowing that to happen.

And you know what? She was right.

I had been on the fence about Kevin, but I kept trying to shove him into the story like foot into a shoe two sizes too small, and it was coming out clunky, uneven and uncomfortable to read.

In addition, Kevin wasn’t happy with is role in the piece either. He was ordinary, nothing special, the all around good guy, and he added absolutely nothing to the plot in his current incarnation. Surely the story would be better served, he surmised, if he were to appear at a later point not only as Megan’s love interest, but also as a possible suspect for the murders to follow. Wouldn’t that add an extra layer to the story? More depth?

And that was the “aha” moment.

I’d been struggling with this project for months and all along my characters had been telling me how to fix it. Not until they finally said “No” and stopped everything in its tracks. And once I followed their demands to be heard, the story – Megan’s story – opened-up. Everything that seemed ill-fitting suddenly fell into place, the structure became sound and the direction the story needed to follow was as clear as a sunny day in July.

So, do my characters talk to me? Absolutely.

But more importantly… I listen.

How Long Is Too Long For Your Audience To Be Ahead of Your Main Character?

•January 6, 2011 • 2 Comments

Had an interesting conversation with a fellow writer today, Ken Koral (check out his online graphic novel Eventy Seven on www.kenkoral.com) that I wanted to share and get feedback on here.

I’m currently working on a new spec script, a thriller with a supernatural element. Now, one of the delicate balancing acts with this kind of piece — or any piece which involves your character having to be convinced there are no logical answers for what’s happening to them and something else is going on — is that your character simply can not be eager to believe in something supernatural, or that there is a conspiracy afoot. You have to put your character through the paces any normal, intelligent human being would have to go through before they are willing to admit something is not right. That something else must be going on here.

But, how long should that be? Because we all know that the audience or reader is going to be way ahead of your characters for this entire “doubting Thomas” period. The trailers, the ad campaign, the book jacket — all of those items are going to give away a good chunk of the plot. That’s how you get your audience. They already know there is a supernatural element, or a conspiracy against your character. That’s why they are there.

As writers, we all know the worst thing you can do is allow the audience to get ahead of your story. But, if your story is to be believable, if disbelief is to indeed be suspended, you must put your character through the paces of their own disbelief otherwise your audience won’t buy in.

When asking this question, I look to U.S. remake of THE RING. Adapted from the original 1998 Japanese film and the Koji Suzuki novel on which it was based, Ehren Krueger does an excellent job of cutting away a good number of the extra story elements which do not advance the plot and has the main character, Rachel (Naomi Watts), watching the cursed video tape by page 33 of his screenplay. Approximately 33 minutes into the film. From here, she begins to seek logical explanations for the deaths surrounding the tape and it’s not until page 42 that she is able to pluck the fly which appears on the video tape off her television screen. The point at which logical explanations can no longer apply. That’s 42 minutes we, the audience, are ahead of the main character. This entire time we already know there is something supenratural going on, that’s why we’re watching the movie!

Yet, it works.

In this case, even though the audience is well ahead of the character for 42 minutes, the character’s journey to acceptance of the supernatural is one filled with a wide array of unsettling images and a near equally unsettling portrait of Rachel as a mother, a dynamic in which her grade-school-aged son seems the adult and she the child. A situation so disturbing and sad, it tends to draw your attention away from the fact we’re ahead of Rachel on this whole killer videotape thing. It’s really not until page 45 and even to page 50 that Rachel catches up with us, and then becomes the vehicle by which our questions will be answered.

So, the questions become: How long is it okay for the audience to be ahead of your characters?

Is it okay for your audience to be ahead of your characters, somewhat, as long as their journey is a compelling one?

How long do you, as a writer, allow this to happen?

And how long do you allow your character to be a “victim” of circumstance (i.e. things keep happening to them they can’t explain) before they become proactive and start seeking answers?

Who The Hell Are You To Write A Blog About Writing When You Haven’t Published or Had A Damn Thing Produced?

•January 6, 2011 • Leave a Comment

That same question could be asked about film and book critics. Who are they to judge films and books when they are not filmmakers or novelists? Who, for that matter, are sports writers to question the decisions and actions of coaches and players when they are not on the field of play? Or athletes of any kind for that matter?

For the record: I’m a Screenwriter who has sold one film script and had two more optioned. But, alas, none of those projects have been produced. All three are trapped in what we affectionately call “development hell” and, honestly, they look as though they are going to be stuck for there for, oh, eternity. But, we press on, no?

The title of the blog is an inside joke, of course. Every writer knows the moment when you are staring at the blank page, feeling as stuck as Augusts Gloop in the chocolate tube in Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, and you suddenly realize how damn dirty and disorganized your desk is. Why it’s a travesty! No wonder you can’t think of anything! Nobody could write in this damn mess!

This then leads to realizing how disorganized your book shelves are. My god, how can you find ANY research materials in this mess. If things were just in order, damn it, you could have had ten pages cranked out by now!

And then there’s the laundry… oh for… apparently you have to do everything around here… *sigh*…

These are, of course, avoidance tactics. No matter how much we love writing, how much we enjoy losing ourselves in the worlds we create, writing is hard work and we avoid it whenever possible. If it were easy, everyone would be doing it. The reason everyone isn’t is because it requires a discipline few have. It requires the ego bruising task of rewriting again and again and again. It’s staying up late a night worrying if you should have used the phrase “dashed to the car” rather than “ran to the card”. “Ran” is so… pedestrian. Ordinary. Does it properly capture or convey the sense of urgency? Crap. I better get out of bed and go over that page again.

Yeah… dashed… or ran… the fate of the world, our world anyway, depends on the right choice. That is the life we have chosen. And that is the life we love.

And that is the life, for some strange reason, I want to write about and share with you here.

Okay… one more page before dinner. During which I’ll ponder what to tackle here next. Until then, check out the short film I made this last June, hopefully coming to a film festival near you.

–Erik

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.