Saturday, June 11, 2011

6 months later...

Holy Crapoli, is it really 6 months since I last blogged? Damn. This might be a long one...

A tally up in brief:
Over the last six months, I entered my low budget comedy into a few comps, and it placed in one (Bluecat) and I've yet to hear from Page. BUT I got some amazing feedback from Bluecat and friends, and have had a few ideas on how to fix my 2nd act! Yippie! Ah... that 2nd act. But I'm getting ahead of myself already.

I have also finished the 1st draft of another comedy. It needs some work on the 2nd act. (Are you sensing a theme?)

This gives me three scripts now that I'm not embarrassed by. Two need rewrites, but I could pitch them in a pinch. In a few weeks, I will start on a big rewrite of an action/adventure. Once that's done, that will make 4.

Number 5 is a special one. Two amazing writers (one in the US and one in Australia) and I are writing a script together. Sorry, I have to take a moment, and just say how incredibly lucky I feel to have found and become a part of this "magic trio" for this script my writing partners and I are doing. We have only ever met online, distance being the key force in that, but we have shared and connected in a way that baffles me still. These two women have become my "sisters" and our script has become a truly passionate project for us all. We are inspired by it and each other, and it's taking my breath away.

Finally, I have a concept for a sci fi thriller, which once completed, will see me at my goal of 6 scripts. I'm feeling good.

And it wouldn't be a good goal without a crazy deadline. I want to have these 6 scripts in marketable shape by this time next year. There's several pitch fests going on this time of year in LA, and I intend to go to them, as much as that thought makes me hyperventilate and shake like a bowl of jello!

But what's made me blog today, other than the fact that I don't want to lose track of my adventures, is the topic that was up for discussion at our monthly Guild meeting last week, thanks to Sean. "What have you learned lately in your writing". And it really made me take stock of the things I've learned over the past 6 months.

I've read some great books. The one I'm reading now "20 Master Plots and how to Build Them" by Ronald B. Tobias is fantastic. I highly recommend it. "The Comic Toolbox" by John Vorhaus is proving to be a good read. He's funny, which I can't say for many books I've read in comedy writing. I've also dipped my toe into the waters of Joseph Campbell, and in turn Chris Vogler. All crazy eye opening stuff. I have taken bits of each on board, making me completely confused, but hopefully also somewhat wiser.

I've read some great scripts. Some from friends, where I always learn a lot, and a few produced ones. I want to read more scripts of my favorite films. Learn more from how the pros do it.

But by far, the best thing I've EVER done in terms of learning and improving my screen writing skills has been an online course called "The Pro Series" from Hal & Cheryl Croasmun at Screenwriting U. It is FULL ON. A 6 month intensive course covering an astounding amount of information, all practical hands on eye openers. I mean, you think you've read it all, heard it all, McKee, Truby, STC, etc. BUT Hal has a different approach. One that works WITH you, to develop your skills as a writer. There is massive homework (1-2 hours writing/night), all relating to a developing and writing a script you start in the class from concept stage, and building up to completing that script.

The way the course is structured is that there are 10 sections altogether. Each are 9-10 days, and we have a week of feedback between sections. My class (PS32!! I feel a cheer coming on...) has one more writing section left in our course, and then a section on Marketing, and then we graduate! I can honestly say that I am emerging a completely different writer than I was 6 months ago. My writing is now deliberate, thought out, full of subtext and rich characters, with better conflicts and more satisfying pay offs. And the skills I have gained will keep improving my writing the more I use them. I am pumped!

It sounds like I've been converted to a freakish cult. Maybe I have. There is an Alumni Group after you graduate, that is an incredible group of writers, all supported by screenwritingU. Hal helps get scripts in production hands, and plays matchmaker to script requests with writers. He's very active in the Alumni's success. He's like the Wizard at the end of the Yellow Brick Road, only he's for real. I kid you not.

But wait, there's more. Oh yeah. I have made some beautiful friendships from my class that I will nurture forever. Friends that have made this amazing, difficult, revolutionary experience very personal, and incredibly fulfilling. We have shared triumphs, frustrations and supported and encouraged each other throughout this process. It might be an online course, but it has been much more intimate than many of the real life experiences I've had.

BTW, if the thought of 6 months of this isn't your bag, then Hal also offeres short 10 day classes. I blogged before about the comedy one I took. It got me skipping down the road of comedy writing, which is huge for me! I love it! Hal does all sorts of shortie classes. If you do one nice thing for yourself and your writing career, do one of these. You won't regret it. Here's a list of the short classes.

Some of the things I've learned from the ProSeries, (not giving too much away, because you really have to discover these things for yourself, and there's a confidentiality agreement I signed and respect as well) are:

1) Concept is key. If your concept isn't marketable, it's a very long up hill battle you're fighting. And there are definitive ways to tell if you've got a marketable concept. But without a doubt, make sure you are writing about something you care about. Otherwise, don't bloody bother.

2) brainstorm. Constantly. Don't write the first idea that comes into your head. Come up with tons of ideas. Then you can pick the one that is best for the situation. Don't be married to something before you know where you're heading with the story. Give yourself freedom to brainstorm without limits.

3) Character profiles. Do them! Know who your character is. They don't have to be complicated. But they have to be interesting. The more defined they are before you start, the more they'll get into your heart with their own voice and the more meaningful their conflicts and char arcs will be. Hal gives a 10 day course on this. It's brilliant stuff.

4) There is a LOT of thought and work that should go into building your plot and outline. A ton to consider, set up, create suspense, levels to construct, tension to build, and more (much more), in order to put the reader on that emotional roller coaster ride, and have it be satisfying in the end. It's completely overwhelming. And it should be. There is an art to a good story. I've learned not to take this lightly. That said, Hal provides a sh*tload of amazing practical ways to approach building a plot, scenes and writing an outline. He chops the mountain into smaller bites, and even provides some alka seltzer. It might be overwhelming, but it's a mother load of fun!

BTW, as an aside, I've learned that for me, the 2nd act is where it's all at. What it's all about. The place to make or break it. The core of what will be great about the story. Traditionally, I've put so much emphasis on the "first 10 pages" (because they need to keep reading) and the satisfying ending (because you need to leave them with a lasting impression), that my poor middle is left with the scraps. It seems to me that all the beats and turning points can be hit, but it's the substance in the middle of those that will make the difference. This is probably the biggest lesson I've learned of late. The 2nd act isn't something to just get from the beginning to the end through, it IS the heart of the story. It breathes life on the fires.

5) Subtext. I freaking love subtext, thanks to Hal. What I learned about this is that it doesn't have to be complicated. In fact, subtext can be quite obvious. It's about having the characters say something different to what they're thinking/acting. Simple. But so effective! Do this 10 day course if you can. It's gold.

6) And then there are a million other gems that I've learned from Hal's lessons, specific and practical ways to approach all aspects of writing a script. If you want to know them, you can! Just take his course. (Please don't ask me to send you his lessons. I won't.) But it will be the best thing you've ever done for your writing career. And I swear, I get nothing for saying that. It's more like when you discover say... a cupcake shop. And it's the best damn cupcakes you've ever seen or tasted in your life. You just HAVE to tell everyone about it. And then when they go try the cupcakes, you both just giggle, nodding, knowing that you've shared the most amazing cupcake experience in the world. Well, it's like that.

I've had three other ah ha learning moments lately not really to do with Hal and the class. One is that I need time between drafts to let everything sit, incubate and detach. There's no question that I want to make my scripts as good as they can be, but there's a perspective that needs to be regained. You work your ass off, it's fun, but hard, you celebrate the 1st draft, and then feedback comes and each critique is like a pin in your voodoo doll. But with blessed time comes perspective, and suddenly you can ditch characters, and loose scenes that you swore were the core of your story before. Time. And patience for the breakthroughs to happen. Good stuff.

I've also been starting to think about the whole marketing thing next year. I'm not kidding, it really is one of my biggest fears. I'm not good at public speaking, or pitching. Actually, this is a horrific understatement! My attempts have been embarrassing and completely uncomfortable for everyone. But I am determined to sell a damn script, and pitching might be a necessary evil to that end. So I started thinking about ways to get over this. And I've decided to start with Toastmasters. I'm going to give them a shot. It can only help really, and hopefully will only hurt a little.

The other breakthrough I had was thanks to Sarah McLachlan. I was listening to her music, and thinking how amazing she is. And it struck me that there could be some people (I don't know who??!) that don't think she's amazing. It shocked me. How I could be so in awe of her, and someone else might not even like her?? And then I realized that it didn't matter. Not everyone has to love her. It's not about that. She does what she loves to do, the best way she knows how. And there are people who are inspired by her. And that's enough. So hell, if that's enough for Sarah... sure is enough for me.

So, that's been my six months in a nutshell. Today I'm going to assemble notes and start on a 2nd draft outline for my comedy rewrite. Time has passed. I'm feeling strong. Inspired. I'm going to put on some Sarah, eat a cupcake and do what I love to do, the best way I know how.