Rules Are Meant To Be Brokem

Rules

That’s pretty much my credo in this life.  Rules?  Lemme at ’em.  Toothpicks come in handy, and broken rules leave enough splinters to do the job.

I dislike rules intensely.

I challenge each and every rule that’s thrown at me.

I bow to rules proven true.

Yeah, that’s the unfortunate truth, and to all those rebels out there without a cause, guess you’ll want me to hand over my membership card.

It’s been months and months since I’ve made a post here, and there’s a bunch to catch up on. I’ll get to those things eventually, if and when they flow naturally.  Right now, I’m itching to get at the thing that needs scratching the most.

As I’ve traveled down the rabbit hole of screenwriting, I’ve gotten snagged on more thorny rules than I ever imagined existed. Holy geez, but there’s one heck of a donnybrook happening out there and gurus galore.

GAH!!

I’ve been choking on rules.

I won’t share any rules but the ones I’ve taken for a spin and have found hold the road, which is what I’m about to do. But first let me say that the way I drive is not your way of driving, and what holds the road for me, won’t hold the road for you.  I get a bit enthusiastic at times, but don’t mistake anything I say as the dictates of a fool, and fool I am.

It’s hard arguing with success, and when talking success, Pixar’s pretty much got it nailed.  Their 22 Rules Of Storytelling are floating around the web like feathers at a poultry farm, but you can find them at the L.A. Screenwriter blog, which is one I’m particularly fond of.  Take a good look at them, keeping in mind whether we’re novelist, poets, scriptwriters, or gossip over lunch, we are storytellers.  Writing isn’t the objective, it’s the means of delivery.

STORYTELLING IS EVERYTHING

What I want to share right now is my own experience with Pixar’s Rule #3.

A small group of screenwriters got together and undertook the insane task of writing 10 pages of scrip for 10 days straight.  If you haven’t attempted scriptwriting, I’ll tell you that 10 pages of script a day = crazy.  You’ve got a lot of deep storytelling to do with a minimum of words, and every word damned well better count.  Very little typing is involved but a maximum amount of storytelling muscle ends up begging for Ben Gay.

When the limits are so tight, there’s no time to edit, no time to think, no time to kill any cats, and no time to pin the little index cards in pretty little rows on the corkboard.

You tell a story.  Fast.

And you’re held accountable because you’re in a group so insane they post a PDF of the day’s work.

We did it. In less than two weeks, all of us wrote a complete screenplay, and all of them were exceptionally good.

Honest.  I’m not lying.  They were entertaining and worth the time spent reading, and better than most of the spectacle that passes for movies these days.  We amazed ourselves and each other.  And I don’t think any of us could see the theme or the why or the what or the purpose of the story we were trying to tell until it was done.

What I got out of this insane challenge was a trust of the innate storytelling that’s in all of us. It’s there for the taking if we just get out of the way.  Remember when you were a little kid and got caught doing something you weren’t supposed to do, and how fast you came up with a story to cover your butt?  Take a minute and remember back to one of those times.  Remember as many of those times as possible.  If you’ve got enough memory storage and can go back far enough, I bet you’ll see a pattern of more convincing and stronger storytelling skills as you regress in age.

It’s there. Set it loose. It might not be pretty, but get it out.

I’ve discovered that this “writing” business is backwards.  We write to tell stories.  Storytelling is a process of discovering the hidden trail of our imagination. My imagination is deeply connected to your imagination, and my job as a storyteller is going deep enough to find that chord of resonance.  That chord snaps with the weight of rules.

So this is the most important thing I’ve learned during the entire time I’ve been away from this blog:

STORY COMES FIRST, RULES COME SECOND

Find the story you’ve got rumbling around inside and set it free, then tame it with the rules.  Better yet, forget the rules and start thinking in terms of tools, as Scott Meyers does on the fabulous GITS blog/website. 

Another precious thing that came out of this experience was friendship and trust.   When you’ve committed to a daily goal with others, and part of that commitment is exposing your raw story to others, it makes going to church naked sound like a sane idea.

I’ve also learned if at any point in our journey as storytellers we think we’ve got it all figured out and it starts coming easy, we’re failing ourselves.  We aspire, we reach, we fail, we claw our way back to square one, then we finally reach our destination.  That’s a plateau, a point of accomplishment that feels righteous to the bone, but not for long.  Once up to that higher point, we have a clear view of yet another level that’s shinier and prettier and more compelling than the one we currently stand on. We want it, and the struggle starts all over again with a different game plan. It helps to be limber.

Whatever it takes to find the story.  That’s the only thing that matters.

I will be taking many more tools for breakneck test drives along the path, but the bond formed in that little group of crazy writers will last forever, and that is one story I’ll never forget.

I love you guys.

Just Sayin’

Won a Gold REMI for screenwriting.  Awards were given at the banquet Saturday night, but I didn’t think to check until today.  It feels kinda nice.

 

https://worldfest.org/home/

 

And That’s A Wrap

http://www.flickr.com/photos/rent-a-moose/3596678856/        “Some of us think holding on makes us strong; but sometimes it is letting go.” ~ Hermann Hesse

In thinking about this blog post, I came up with a grocery shopping list of why I’m leaving behind the game of writing prose and moving on to something else. The more I thought about it, the more I realized every reason was a story I told myself in hopes of making sense of a preference.

Just a preference. Nothing more.

As I waited for the new direction to take shape, I dawdled around with an online class about Human Irrational Thinking, thinking it would be something like one of the tens of books written for the general public. Not even close. The class was intense, academic, an overload of dense reading, and very Duke University. Not what I expected but still fun, and one of the first lectures validated my thoughts. We’re irrational by nature, and everything we think we know about what we do are stories we tell ourselves in hopes of making sense of our irrational nature. This seems to be particularly true in interpreting scientific data. Bummer, huh.

So off I go to the world of scriptwriting, leaving behind prose, and doing so just because.

This blog will stay and be the same, only different (a standard line in Hollywood).

As much as I’ve struggled with every single blog post I’ve made here and elsewhere, and as much as I’ve dreaded the thought of digging up something to blog about, I can’t wait to let her rip about what I see in films and TV. The depth of character, the insights into humanity, the power of storytelling, and magic of collaboration have started a fire in my head I’m anxious to share. But I’ll be doing that sharing in the form of questions rather than dictates. In the screenwriting workshops I’ve been busy taking, rather than blogging, the thing that’s struck me most is how projects are workshopped through questioning rather than pedantry. I like that style and I’ll stick with it.

Having said there’s nothing rational about this change, or human thinking, there are some inescapable facts. In making this change I’ve briefly considered the facts, as best I can understand them, and they are:

  • There is one, and only one, requirement for writing an accepted script: It has to achieve the impossible.
  • The probability of busting into the business are slim to none.
  • Once you’re in, you remain in only as long as you continue achieving the impossible.
  • Scriptwriters work longer and harder than any other writers.
  • You can’t blog, promote, bullshit, or hustle a script into production. There’s too much at stake. (I like this one the most. Film is America’s second largest export and the most powerful source of influence on the planet. The biggest animals in the film food chain have very few twitter followers yet control billions of dollars. When something like $12,000,000 is spent on just the pilot of a TV show, nobody cares how many fans and followers you have, that script and franchise damned well better float high above the water.)
  • Hollywood is the smallest town in America and a place where you can have the greatest reach and influence with only a handful of people knowing your name. Celebrities are the front men and women of the illusion.

Every job is like a penny in that it has two sides. One side is shiny, the other is a mess. My counsel to the hundreds of my husband’s students dealing with the uncertainties of senior year and the transition into whatever is waiting for them is to take a hard look at the ugly side of their choices and decide which kind of ugly they can handle. What are the pitfalls of failure that come with every choice, and which of those failures bother them least?

It’s my turn in taking my own counsel. The downside of failing in this new world of prose writing and publishing would be devastating. I can’t explain why it would be devastating, especially since the rewards are so slender in comparison to other professions. I don’t feel the same about scriptwriting. If I try and try and try and fail, I’ll still feel great about having given it a shot. Talk about irrational. I don’t know, I could be dealing with burn out from all the happy posters about never giving up writers pass around. I don’t care. I’m willing to take the risk.

Now I’ve got to explain how this blog will remain the same only different.

I believe for writers to stay competitive, they’ll (we’ll?) need to come up to the bar set by visual storytelling. We’ll have to take big risks and reach for the impossible. Most of what I can currently see in visual storytelling (I’m banking on my perceptual abilities improving with increased exposure) will apply to all forms of storytelling. In short, I’ll continue to yammer on.

What will change is maintaining a second blog where I can dump strictly prose storytelling, triggered by explicating a film, TV episode, or principle of visual storytelling. I’ve got a grandfather in my lineage who hopped the boat for America from Ireland, and if the Human Genome Project is correct and every move of every ancestor is encoded in our DNA, I’m screwed by the gift of gab. I will always like telling stories without visual aids as a hobby. I have no intention of backing down on becoming a better at telling those stories. I don’t want to make a living out of it, nor do I need an audience. It is, once again, a preference, and I want to do it the best I can. That’s how this blog will remain the same only different (there are multiple levels of meaning in that sentence – take whichever one appeals to you).

I’m also moving this over to self-hosting, and that could take some time.  After six months, my new smart phone bests me every single time.  I was born in the wrong century.

And that, as they say, is that.  I’m done with digging for the heart of prose and passing along whatever I find. We have a lot of writers right now who love blogging about the writing process, and it shows in their blogging and the books they write. Dig for the ones who trip your trigger.

But for this blog about writing and blogging, it’s a wrap.

For those in love with visual storytelling and digging it against their better judgment, I’ll see you when I get back from hiatus in Houston. I going to a festival there for six days of hanging with indie filmmakers.

Until I return with photos and a clue on the new blog….

Moving-On-Quotes-05

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photo credit: rent-a-moose via photopin cc

Irrational Childhood Fantasies

http://www.flickr.com/photos/savolskertson/57355538/Did you have a childhood dream?  A fantasy of who you’d be when you grew up?  I did.

Was there a moment when you knew that fantasy was the stuff of unformed childish thinking, unaware of the world as it is?  Did you let go of that fantasy for the sake of something more realistic, more mature to match your great big kid self in his or her high single digits years and serious about becoming a grown-up?  I did.

As adults we’re taught to never let go of our dreams, to chase them if they’re slipping through our grasp  We’re told in cheerful posters with uplifting messages that our dreams, our passions, are the stuff of a great good life.  We’ll never regret anything as much as letting go of our dreams.

I think most of those adventures and destinations we hold as our deepest dreams are the second dreams we adopt.  Maybe the third or fourth as we mature into the double digit years and become ever more aware of limits imposed on us by reality.  There is no stronger drive in the human animal than autonomy and creating something of ourselves, by ourselves, and for the naked pleasure of knowing we are our own creation. We do whatever it takes to reach that end.

You might think this is balderdash, but go back to when you were tiny, see yourself alone and acting out who you were going to be.  Were you wearing a magic cape or have your mother’s dining room centerpiece on your head because it looked like the crown of a princess?

Did you have the finial of your four poster bed in your hand as you belted out every song Shirley Temple ever sang?  Did you dance every dance she ever danced with your hair a frizzy mess because you demanded your grandmother set your hair with bobby pins in hopes of waking up with ringlets?  I did.  I was gonna be Shirley Temple, re-make every movie she ever made and star in them all.  It was Shirley Temple or bust.

There was no heartbreak the day I stop mid-song, took a good long look at my second-grade self in the mirror, and knew the dream was over.  No longer was I a cute little pre-schooler, and get a clue kid, I never had dimples, save for that annoying one on my chin that blew the entire illusion.   Goodbye, Shirley, it was nice knowing you. Time to move along like a good kid.

Putting away childhood fantasies is easy. It’s part of growing up we all accept. Oprah Winfrey put hers away.  She grew up an abused child who found comfort in reading.  Books were her companions and her comfort.  She read obsessively, and she “got” the bigger stories in the small books.  You’d think someone with that kind of early addiction to books would dream of being a writer.  Not Oprah.  She wanted to be Barbara Walters.  She chased that dream into broadcast journalism, eventually settling for becoming the richest, most powerful woman of the 20th Century.  Poor girl.  Poor little quitter.  

But wait a minute.  Who was it that landed the interview of the 21st Century with Lance Armstrong?  Oprah Winfrey.  For three hours, longer than any interview Barbara Walters ever achieved, Oprah grilled him directly and without mercy, just as Barbara Walters would have done, if she’d been able to land the interview, and if she’d had the stamina to prepare then endure such bold questioning.  Poor little girl Oprah.  Poor little quitter.  When Armstrong was ready to come clean with himself and the public, he picked on Oprah as the one to whom he’d bear his shame and deceit (to the best of his ability). 

I wondered how many others watched that interview focused on Oprah and the realization of her childhood dream as I did.  How many were left saying, “What?  Did Armstrong say something?  Was it important?” as I did because they were cheering and crying through the realization of an unreachable childhood dream.  A dream that slept through all those years of fame and fortune.  

That was hot stuff, but probably something I saw because I wanted to see it.  Nobody else seemed to be talking about it.  Armstrong was the center of attention.  

But then I had an experience a few weeks ago that whipped me back to Oprah’s interview and the importance of irrational, unrealizable childhood dreams.  I was working with a development professional in my field and listening to her summarize my project in terms I’d never realized before. The more she talked about the strong parts of my work (after ripping apart the portions that weren’t working), a fog dropped over me, muffling her voice and obscuring all signs of direction.  It was the surreal fog of awakening inside a dream set loose from a long buried treasure chest.

I had written a story exactly like a Shirley Temple movie.  I thought I’d written about the love of a father and the healing power of paternal love, but I was wrong.  At no time during the writing process was I ever aware I’d written what the coach was telling me I’d written.  That project is doing fairly well at the moment, as did another project very much like it I’d written years earlier.  That other story was about a little boy and his father, but as I sat in my fog listened to the distorted sounds of my thoughts in the mist, I realized it was just another Shirley Temple story done in drag.  

Do we ever let go of irrational childhood fantasies?  How much do they drive our work as creatives?  Picasso once said at the age of eight he could draw like Raphael, but it took him a lifetime to see as a child.  In our modern culture we spend big bucks digging for our authentic selves and uncovering our purpose and passions.  The Romans, ever practical, made it easy.  Their belief was our purpose was to be found in what we liked.  Our likes as children were the voice of our daemon, that ethereal being sent by the gods to shape our destiny and stay with us until we die.  

Could it be that simple?  What we like as children is our destiny?  Could it be that easy?  Do we block our ability to resonate with others because we’ve blocked the resonance of our own irrational, uninformed, ill-conceived mysteries of childhood?  We do speak of our inner child, but only in terms of how damaged they are and in need of healing.  What about the perfect little child inside of us that dreams without boundaries? 

Look around at the explosion within indie publishing.  What dominates the explosion?  Romance (ah, Prince Charming!), YA paranormal (I’m a magical princess with dragons asleep at my feet), SiFi creations (look at me! I can fly!), horror stories (tell me that scary story again!).  Did you clean out kitchen cabinets of pots and pans and make mud pies all day long (bet you write a food and craft blog now), or play soldier (bet you’re in a corporate job these days)?

In real life I cuss like a sailor and walk like a honkey-tonk woman.  I write with a clenched fist and eyes focused to the daggered tip of an editor’s red pencil.  Every.  Word.  Is.  Calculated.  Every sentence is censored by craft.  I’m never satisfied with what I’ve written. I’ve been to university, dontcha know, and learned all the tools of my trade, but I always seem to drop them.  This past year I’ve written nearly a million words, but none of them caught fire until that sneaky little girl caught up with me, whispering the lyrics of Good Ship Lollipop in my dream-deaf ear.

Maybe we could all benefit from going back to the shapeless days of our childhoods and observing the perfect creations we once were.  Watch the games we played before knowledge of games with rules took over.  What games did you play when there was nobody to play with and you were the boss of you?  What childish fantasies did you have of magic and pies made out of mud, or saving the world from the bad guys?  Watch you in the rear view mirror and remember.  Can you feel that little twerp tugging at your now?

You’ve got nothing to lose.  You’re a grown-up.  You know the patterns and problems of communication.  You can bring that perfect wild child that is the soul of you back to the present.

You can sit together and tell each other silly stories, and your laughter will blast every roadblock in your path.  That child can barely form letters of the alphabet with her un-trained hand, but that’s what grown-ups are for.

We craft our perfect selves and tell stories of our silliest dreams with form, style, purpose, value, and a voice as irresistible as a child’s tickled belly laugh, sailing the seas of imagination on the Good Ship Lollipop.

Photo courtesy of Photopin.com and salvoskertson

 

Write Like A Dog

http://www.flickr.com/photos/shankbone/3022864843/I’m a weather wimp.  Growing up in sunny California, then spending most of my adult life in the heat of Nevada, I whimper like a pup when the seasons change and the cold settles in. This week I decided to butch up this former beach bunny and commit to my morning hikes, regardless of the temperature (which I check obsessively on my phone).  I like to keep promises I make to myself.  If I can’t keep those promises, how can I keep the promise I make to readers?

This is where I and the dogs go on weekdays, now that I’m no longer a wimp.

Lake Alma

This year the city has added paved walking paths and hacked a trail through the woods around the lake.  It looks fairly tame, but don’t be fooled (as I have been).  There are rugged spots that challenge the heart, lungs, and every muscle of the butt, back, and legs.  Little inclines like this one.

Going up and down these hills a few times leaves me bent over, hands on knees, gasping for breath, and unable to do much more than watch my tough little dogs at play.  Like any creative, artists, or writer, all senses are alert and instruction on how things are done is found in every place we look, everything we do, and any sense that’s engaged.

As I watched my dogs, new lessons about writing emerged.

The first thing I noticed was their love of adventure.  Toby is more of an auditory adventurer, while Molly is more a victim of her nose.  Both of them check the turns of the car and the smells coming in the windows to determine if they’re going to the groomer, the lake, the creek, or on a senseless drive to the Fort for that yummy smelling coffee we won’t let them drink.  Once they know where they’re going, once they’re assured they’re somewhere familiar and safe, they always fine something new to explore in the same old place.

Toby perks his ears and takes off at full thrust into thickets, flying over ditches and puddles like a gazelle, chasing down his curiosity about the distant sounds he hears.  Nothing stops him, and new feats of body are expressed that often lead him exhausted for the rest of the day.  He’s not thinking of the rest of the day when he’s on an adventure of discovery.  He just goes.

What about you?  What about me and my writing?  Once I’m in the groove of a project and know what it’s about and have a fair map of the story’s terrain, am I failing to abandon myself to the adventure, follow the sounds and run?  What am I afraid of if I’m following the rigid path of an outline and not exploring?  I’ve got a great big delete key and a garbage can if the exploration turns out to be a dud, and the outline is always as a safe place of return.

What holds us back from finding adventure in the daily grind writing can often be?  Sometimes I get stuck in the rules I’ve created for myself, the rules I’ve read from too many books and too many blogs, rules I’ve misunderstood or taken as gospel without testing them for myself.

Writing is who we are, not what we do.  It’s the adventure of our life.  It’s our point of safety we can always return to if we get tangled in the brambles of an adventure or lost in the woods of our own words.  We need to exercise our imagination as often as if we can, build its muscle.  The more muscle we give our imagination, the more imagination we’ll have to get ourselves out of whatever mess our adventures may end in, if a mess is where we’re headed.  But we won’t know until we get there.  And we won’t get there if we play it safe, stay on the paved and predictable road going around and around the same old path.  Is that what you want to give your readers, a good spin while standing in place?

Didn’t think so.

Writing is who you are, not what you do, and who you are belongs to you and nobody else.  Explore who you are on this adventure, test your limits, run after whatever voice or scent or sound you detect in the distance.  Surprise yourself, define the surprises, refine them.  Go.

Write like a dog following their instincts and curiosity.  Write like a dog given over to the moment.  Write like a dog with determination and loyalty to your purpose and destination.  Write like a dog and scratch whatever itches.  Why not?  You’re alone in your private place.  Run.

The leash and harness will come out soon enough when you edit, deal with critique, grow dissatisfied with the junk of the first draft, or face constructing a new project, which you will do because writing is who you are not what you do and you will always be writing again and again and again.

Go.  Run.  Play.  Explore.

Write to the outer limits of your thoughts, your imagination.  Write without boundaries.  There are readers waiting for what only you can give them.

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photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc