Being specific

September 19, 2017 0 comments

How making specific choices can elevate the quality of your screenplay

When I started the journey of writing BIG SISTER with my co-writer Blake Pinter, I of course had no idea where it would take us. When we won a “first prize,” I thought it meant we were “on our way.”

The first prize was nice, but it didn’t really matter. The prize was not from the short list of “recognized” competitions. Nonetheless, it meant something to me. It meant this story that I felt needed to be told had been acknowledged. It had managed to climb above other scripts and survive. That’s no small feat.

Missing components

But… somewhere in my heart I knew some element or component was missing. It was, I felt, the reason the script has not gone as far as I think it could (meaning: produced and distributed as a feature film). This came to light when I participated in a group mentorship offered through Roadmap Writers, which more and more writers are hearing about and gravitating towards. The mentor in this case was a gentleman named Chris Deckard.

Chris picked up on an element of the script which we originally put in as a sort of B-story. The lead character, LYNN, spends her whole life focusing on others while ignoring herself. This type of behavior backfires and at the end she’s forced to face herself and ask for help. It is, we believe, a unique story about an enabler and the price they pay for being one. But the element I’m referring to is a book that Lynn is supposedly writing. Her sister, Suzanne, who idolizes her, can’t understand why Lynn hasn’t gotten around to the book. The reason Lynn gives is that she’s focusing her energies on helping her boss/lover Oliver with his book and career. Finally, when that relationship ends badly, Lynn does return to her book, but realizes that she has nothing to say.

It’s a device that served us well… except… Chris pointed out: Okay, so, she writes a book or tries to. Who cares? So what?

A-ha moment

As soon as he said that, I realized the issue. The subject matter of the book is not specific. There’s no pressing reason for Lynn to write it. It’s a book that she said she would write long ago and hasn’t yet. There isn’t anything connected with it in a real, emotional way to make it important enough to really matter.

Then, suddenly, in the shower, where all my good ideas come to me (what is it about water and creative ideas?), I realized why. The missing component of this story is that it is based on a tragic family incident that I was unable to address in the script. It was simply too painful. And so, I created a whole world around the incident, without addressing it. The result is a script that resonates with people, but as I now see, is not addressing the elephant in the room.

Chris was right to focus on the book. He (gratefully) acknowledged that the rest of the script was very real and all the dialogue felt authentic. He wanted to read past the first 10 pages because he quickly became interested in our characters. All those were pluses. But… the book. The non-specific book about a non-specific topic that is being written for a non-specific reason. That.

The book, I now realize, is what Lynn must write to express the family tragedy that she and Suzanne know about only too well. Lynn is trying to brush it under the rug, while Suzanne is pushing her to write about it in the way only she (Lynn) can.

By addressing this, by making it real, by making it tangible, by being specific,  it will allow an undercurrent of raw emotion to travel along with the main story, an emotion which is, in fact,  intrinsically part of the main story.

When tragedy strikes, people deal with it in different ways. I chose to deal with it by writing a screenplay. But I held back on what hurt me the most. Now, thanks to Chris’s keen eye, I’m going to update the script and let the truth resonate. And be specific about it. Being specific, really, is the key.

More soon. Now, back to the pages…

A new screenplay, a new journey

July 24, 2017 0 comments

And so the adventure begins…

My writing partner, Blake Pinter, and I have finished a working draft of our new screenplay, “TILLIE.” As most creative projects are, this was a major labor of love.  I am sure neither of us realized what we were getting ourselves involved with by taking on this adaptation of the book, “TILLIE, A MENNONITE MAID; A STORY OF THE PENNSYLVANIA DUTCH.”

In order to write this, I made some major changes; mainly, giving up my career as a professional musician. It became impossible to devote the time and energy required to write this while also working until midnight and taking three trains to get home. After holding our first reading yesterday, and hearing our work come to life,  I know I made the right decision.

“TILLIE” is the story of a young girl who hungers for an education, despite her father’s belief that, at the age of 12, she’s “learned enough for a girl.” It takes place in 1890s Pennsylvania Dutch Country. To write it, Blake and I immersed ourselves in researching the era, the (New) Mennonite religion, the unique language spoken in this area, and the accompanying traditions, clothing, slang, philosophies and more of that time. We were fortunate to actually visit the area where this story might have taken place and get a picture of how life might have been for Tillie.

Everything that Blake and I have written to date is about people seeking their identity and discovering their truths and their strengths. “TILLIE” spoke to us on many levels and we hope we have done it justice.

Although the road to write this first draft was a long one, I know full well that it is just square one on the game table. To do this properly, we know there will be notes and rewriting sessions. That is part of the journey, we understand. But just getting here has been an amazing ride.

I hope in the months that come we will have good news to share about “TILLIE.”

Put it down on paper

June 15, 2017 0 comments

A lot of people talk about wanting to write a screenplay. Okay. Great. But… how will that help them? Are they in the “exploratory” stage, where they’re not sure if they really want to/can/should? How long will that go on?

Here’s an idea: Put it down on paper. Yes, I know; we live in a digital age. Okay, put it on a digital page. (Oh, that rhymed!) You can always rewrite it — and trust me, if you’ve done any kind of screenwriting (or writing in general), you will quickly understand that rewriting is what you will be doing most of the time.

But where will it all lead? We don’t know. It might not lead anywhere. But it might lead somewhere glorious.

I have been hired three times to write for indie production companies, but my most recent assignment was the best. First: I was paid in full (wow, what a great feeling!). Second: Because I had put in the hours (years is more like it) of hard work to hone my craft, I was able to to deliver a tight, well-written screenplay in three weeks (granted, I was given a detailed outline). The fact that I was able to do that, and that the director and producer were pleased with my efforts, was only achieved because of one particular message I paid attention to: “Give yourself the freedom to write badly.”

That is a quote from Ellen Sandler, one of the best writing teachers I know.  I was lucky enough to spend time with Ellen when I invited her to Tokyo (where I live) to teach some writing workshops. Her observations and comments liberated me from thinking everything has to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect. But it’s not going to be anything at all unless you put it down on paper.

If you make the effort to write on a regular basis, you might be surprised: you might actually get paid for your words. That you put down on a page (or a digital page).

It can happen. Think about it. (Better; WRITE about it!)

Listen to your heart

May 17, 2017 0 comments

A simple phrase, and yet…

When it comes to screenwriting, do you jump on bandwagons because “that’s what the studios want”? Or do you write stories that truly resonate with you?

I ask this because I’ve been reading so many “helpful articles” and “things you absolutely must know” if you want to sell your script. It seems there are many “rules” that readers apply to a script, and if those rules aren’t followed, poof, it’s gone. Apparently one of those rules is about scripts that don’t appeal to the reader’s sensibilities.

Today I read how a reader passed on the Academy Award-winning film “Spotlight” because he thought “no one would be interested in the subject matter.” I thought that attitude was cavalier. But what it made me realize (yet again) is that the entire business of screenplays is subjective.

I have had people read my scripts and say, “sparkling dialogue, great characters, emotional storyline,” and others say, “dialogue was okay, characters were so-so.”  Who is “right”?

I don’t think anyone is “right,” because, as celebrated screenwriter William Goldman once said, “Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”

The more I write and attempt to get my screenplays out there, the more I reflect on the power of Mr. Goldman’s statement.

That said: Keep writing what’s important to you. Study, learn, read, have an awareness of the market place, but don’t let all the noise stop you from writing the screenplay that sings in your heart.

The Endless List of Things You Must Know

March 24, 2017 0 comments

At some point I became aware that I was being bombarded by articles/emails  that contained phrases to the following effect:

  • The Ten Things You Must Know To Make it as a Screenwriter!
  • Learn the Five Elements Your Screenplay Must Have to Give It The Spark It Needs!
  • You MUST Enter This Screenwriting Contest If You’re Serious About Screenwriting!
  • Only one seat remaining in this screenwriting class you MUST take!

Perhaps you’ve read these articles and have been swept up in a wave of powerful emotions: “I better get on board or I’ll miss out.” Maybe you think that If you don’t leap at these opportunities the instant you get them, your chance will pass you by.

I don’t think so.

For a period of about three years, I jumped on almost every  course, class, pitch event, and contest I could. I was certain by doing so that my script “Big Sister” would sell.

It has not sold–yet. But the benefit of all the things I participated in was: I got great notes,  insights, tips and advice from executives, readers, judges and producers. I was also able to refine my verbal/written pitch so I will be able to present myself well when the day comes.

Maybe most importantly, I learned  the following:

  1. If I don’t participate in such-and-such a class/event/contest, there will always be others and I will still learn from the notes, insights, tips and advice.
  2. It takes a lot of time to participate in all of the above.
  3. I am better served coming to the table with 3-5 solid projects in case one of them piques someone’s interest enough to say, “What else do you have?”

I let the background “must do” hysteria die down and took a step back. I now have finished writing a historical drama (screenplay), further developed my concept for a TV drama, and wrote a screenplay on assignment (paid) for cable TV.

I now feel more confident about approaching the screenwriter’s “must-do” list. And since I know it is endless, I can always return. For now, all this screenwriter “must” do is write with clarity and purpose.

A new year, a new month, a new page

January 8, 2017 0 comments

I love the month of January for all that it represents… the newness, the freshness, the chance to “start over.” These wonderful gifts can, and should, be embraced every day.

As an American, I know my country, and the world, will face some harsh new realities this year. This wonderful “January feeling” has been a struggle to maintain mentally and emotionally, but it is essential for me to do so in order to create. Because that’s what I do: I create.

This year I did not make any resolutions. I decided that as things occurred to me that needed attention, I would act on them appropriately. This has been working well, so far.

So, how will I approach my wonderful dreams in 2017? I think I have an answer.

In 2016 I spent six months participating in programs offered by Roadmap Writers. Roadmap is all about screenwriters, for film and/or TV, and I greatly benefited from all I learned. My scripts are better, my thinking is clearer, and I was able to, at last, pitch my feature “Big Sister” with a sense of authority.

Despite all I learned, I did not come away with a manager or agent, as many of the other writers did. But what I did come away with was an acknowledgment of myself and my talents.

For many years, starting with songwriting, and now screenwriting, I took classes, studied privately, entered contests, made a few splashes, and yet… as of this writing, I have still not connected on the level I’ve wanted to. And it occurred to me one day as we were entering 2017, that the main reason for that is: I was unwilling to “submit” to the power of my own talents, to the “call,” if you will, of my greater self.

It’s hard to say what tipped the boat, but one day I woke up and asked myself: “Do I believe in my talent or not?” And I just blurted out, “Yes!” Getting to that “yes” has taken me eons… but, better late than never.

There are many things I want to say, about the state of my country, about my adopted country (Japan), about the entertainment industry, about … well, just about everything.

But for now, I will say that I love writing screenplays, I love embracing my “brand” (female-driven dramas with sharp humor), and I love the opportunity to put words down on the page in such a way that they have the potential to move another human being. And these days, somehow, I am doing so with more frequency, passion, commitment, confidence and belief.

So, here’s to January, and all that it might bring. My pen is in hand, my page is blank, and my imagination is rich.

The ink continues to flow…

November 6, 2016 0 comments

THE DEVOLS

I wrote my first script in approximately 1997, a sitcom. My co-writer Blake Pinter and I were clueless, but thought we were funny. We had an idea: Two nut sisters, who can’t stand each other, must live with each other in order to survive. It was originally called “The DeVols.”

I knew one high-level TV writer who had worked on “Roseanne,” “Murphy Brown,” “Frasier,” and other extremely big shows. He agreed to read my pilot. He wrote a scathing 8-page dissection of it. If I had been young and impressionable, I probably would have driven off a cliff. But fortunately, I had 18 years of therapy behind me. I had thick skin; I could cope with his criticism.

This is good, because I have encountered all kinds of criticism in the entertainment business. I started as a songwriter. My worst experience was with an A&R person at Geffen Records. I played some of my songs for him. He said “no one” sang songs by songwriters anymore, that artists were writing their own songs (I guess he never heard of Diane Warren). He also said if I hadn’t been sitting there, he would have thrown my songs in the trash.

It was unnecessarily cruel. He didn’t have to love my songs; hating them was okay, too. But what the meeting lacked was constructive criticism. At any rate, I persevered with my songs and about 8 years after that meeting, I finally got a song produced and released. One dream achieved, a million to go.

PERSEVERE

Back to “The DeVols.” Although the criticism I received on it was scathing, I still felt the idea was worth pursuing. I put it on the “back-burner” (something I do not like to do), but sometimes it takes ideas years to form fully. It wasn’t until the Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt came out that my co-writer said, “It’s TIME for ‘The DeVols.'”

Blake was always more progressive than I. I was too afraid to go out of the box. But Kimmy opened doors in my mind and I went back to “The DeVols” and updated it via a class I took through Roadmap Writers.  The script is now called “Better Together.” It received a quarter-finalist in the Screencraft Screenwriting Fellowship (as “The DeVols”).  It’s still about two nut sisters — but it’s grown into something richer and more layered, as I’d like to think I have. If I had succumbed to the criticism I received so long ago, would I even have wasted my time pursuing this? No. The problem (?) is: I still believe in it. And I think, ultimately, that is the point of this post.

MY PEN WILL NEVER RUN DRY

Maybe I was clueless when I started. But I have persevered. All my scripts have “placed” in competitions. I am proud of that. None have been produced, other than the short scripts I have produced myself, but being acknowledged by competitions is what has given me the impetus to keep going.

Soon, I will have been writing screenplays on and off for 20 years. During that time I have been hired three times to write screenplays for others. None, including the one I mentioned in a previous blog, have been produced, despite what people said and promised. People get ideas, they want to do something, they get others involved… and then… things suddenly change. It is the nature of the business. So, that is why I made my own films; I don’t have to wait for others to get their act(s) together.

Now I am mainly focused on writing screenplays and teleplays. No one is paying me to do this… YET. But, I believe, one day, someone will. So, for those that ask “Am I wasting my time?” “Does any of this mean anything?” “Will I ever get paid to do this?” “Am I too old?” “What’s the point of this?” — I think the answer is in the words on your page. Your commitment to them. Your belief that they matter.

So, here in my Tokyo office, lit by light filtered through prisms on a crisp fall day, I continue to write. I have lots of paper, lots of ink, lots of ideas. My pen will never run dry.

I need 48 hours a day…

August 20, 2016 2 comments

… which I don’t have and never will. So, I’ll try to wedge this in while I have a few spare minutes.

I started off this year with a screenwriting assignment that, to put it politely, didn’t work out well. I have now been presented with another screenwriting assignment, and I’m eagerly looking forward to it, although I have been warned that it is going to take up all my time. That’s okay. Based on the knowledge I have, it will be produced. When that day comes, I’ll reference this blog post.

In the meantime, I am in the fourth month of a five-month journey with Roadmap Writers. I am not a salesman, but for my money (literally), Roadmap Writers is what I have been missing in my writing life for years.

As a result of participating in Roadmap Writers, I believe my loglines for my projects are much better, I believe my script “Big Sister” is in fighting shape and ready to be produced, and I believe that my pitching ability has improved. The last one is a big one for me, because it is the one component of being a screenwriter that I have little confidence in, and I admit it. But I will say that I feel much more comfortable than I did before and that is a major step forward for me.

One thing I’d like to share: In my pitch I was focusing a lot on the storyline and giving lots of details. I still do, but as a result of a pitch-coaching session, it was brought home to me that maybe one reason people weren’t connecting to the pitch is because I wasn’t coming at it from an emotional connection. In my mind I was, but I can see what the coach meant, and now I’m leading with that emotional connection more. We’ll see how things go, but… anyway, I feel better about my pitch.

Also as a result of participating in Roadmap Writers’ classes, a producer has expressed interest in “Big Sister,” and I have a one-hour TV drama (“Spice”) that basically came from a one-line joke I made to my friend. I am still in shock that we developed it into a TV show. Now we have to prepare the “bible” for it, but I’m looking forward to that.

There’s more… but you get the drift. The classes, lectures and pitching opportunities in Roadmap Writers have taken almost all my time, which is one reason why I don’t blog here often.

As a side note: Earlier this year I cut back to a bare minimum my playing piano at night. I’m proud of being a professional pianist, and I earned a fair amount of money being one, but it was cutting into all aspects of my life, mainly good sleep. I now have more energy to pursue my second greatest love after music, screenwriting, and I’m ecstatic. Yes, I made a number of sacrifices to do this, but I’m much happier doing what I’m doing.

I’ll touch base, hopefully again, this year. Meanwhile, if you do have a moment, check out Roadmap Writers. They rock!

Sacrifices, Successes

May 1, 2016 0 comments

I often look at days between my blog entries and wonder where they’ve gone. But then I remember… they’ve been spent writing. Since I last checked in, I, along with my two wonderful co-writers, have been able to get “Big Sister” in fighting shape, write a new screenplay (we can’t divulge the details yet), start mapping out a one-hour dramatic pilot, and make notes on one of our earlier projects, “Mend,” which we know needs a good polish. I was also, somehow, able to revise and update my first book, “Freelancing in Tokyo” — although, looking back, I’m not sure where I wedged that all in.

The amount of hours and days spent at my computer, alone and in meetings with my co-writers, does boggle my mind. But the results, for me at least, have been worth it.

Are there sacrifices? Yes. And perhaps the biggest one for me was letting go of my regular “job.” I put quotes around it, because it was never a regular job. You see, I happen to be a professional pianist and accompanist. I have made a fairly good living this way for most of my adult life. But it was becoming painfully obvious to me that if I really wanted to commit to screenwriting and make a go of it, I could no longer continue.

For years I was somehow able to juggle multiple freelance jobs and survive on 4-6 hours of sleep. I’ve always been a person with excess energy, but when that energy starts to dissipate, things don’t get done. And I was not able to devote the time and energy to my writing projects… and I didn’t like it.

What happened, in essence, is that the writing started to move front and center. It took precedence and demanded attention. Making the decision to leave behind my musician days was something that troubled me for months, but finally, it just became obvious that I had to do it.

My “success” is the time and energy I am now able to devote to something that has taken me by the shoulders and shaken me up and said, “This is what you are supposed to be doing; this is what you must do.” I could not argue with something so strong. My “last night” of performances was a scant two weeks ago… and while I have pangs of bittersweet memories, I have done the right thing.

The point of this post is to encourage you NOT TO WAIT. I should have done this years ago, but, frankly, I was afraid. A friend told me once, “Jump and the net will appear.” I understood what it meant, but I wasn’t quite ready to stand at the edge of the cliff. Well, here I am; I stood, jumped, and survived, and I’m writing this to you as someone who’s “been there.”

I have many dreams and many passions and they are almost all connected with the written word. This was the right move for me… and I hope you will let my experience inspire you to pursue your dream, whatever it may be.

Create Your Own Writers’ Retreat

February 27, 2016 0 comments

There are many, many, many opportunities for you to spend tons of money on writers’ retreats. You can join a group of like-minded individuals and be guided through your project (in my case, screenplays) and gain the benefit and insight of those who have walked the road before you.

But what if the opportunity arises for you to create your own writers’ retreat? This is what happened for me and my co-writer, Blake Pinter. We are currently nearing the end of a two week retreat in the perfectly lovely Cape May in New Jersey.

I knew nothing of Cape May and had never even been to New Jersey prior to this visit. I have learned a lot on so many levels that I can’t imagine not doing such a retreat again, if all the cards align.

In our case, a friend’s house in the Cape May area became available and we brought our suitcases, our laptops and our dream project with us.

We do not have anyone guiding us or instructing us or prodding us. We have only our own consciences and desire to write a great script. We also have peace and quiet and enough time and space to spread out and think clearly about what we really want to say.

Blake is from New Jersey and is a frequent visitor to Cape May. But for me, everything was fresh and new. I was able to take brisk walks along the shore in the morning, explore the quaint, charming streets and “soak up” the atmosphere. All of this gave me a fresh view of not only what I was trying to achieve, but also a new perspective on myself. Speaking for myself, I became quite clear that it is essential to “get out of town” as often as possible in order to refresh the mind and the creative spirit.

This particular experience was unique and I don’t know that we will have such an opportunity in the future, but if we are not offered one, I know I will have to create one.

Wherever you might be in your writing career, if you need to “get away,” do so. Even if it is for a day or two. Allow yourself the time and space to look at your pages, new or old ones, with eyes refreshed by nature or a new city or a different environment.

As this retreat draws to a close, I am cherishing every minute and I know it will be sad to say goodbye. But I am buoyed by the fact that we have essentially “banged out” a rough draft of a new screenplay, and that was the goal.

 

 

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