Thursday, November 09, 2006

Alex Haley and the Big Canoe

I don't know why I haven't posted this story before now, but it's a great example of point of view and the process of doing character research.

Back in college in 1986, I had the pleasure of meeting Alex Haley. He was in town on a lecture tour and agreed to drop by our playwriting class to hang out and answer some questions. We were all thrilled and eventually not disappointed in the slightest.

Mr. Haley was a quiet, gentle, and well-spoken man, who was eager to take the time to help us better understand the writing process in general. It was a very intimate setting, with only seven or eight of us sitting in the small Theatre Arts Department faculty lounge.

When the time came for questions, I was ready with mine: "What's the most important thing you've learned about researching characters?"

He looked up, thought for a second, and proceeded to relate the following anecdote:

When he was researching his most famous work, Roots, he did extensive study into the kind of ships that were used to transport slaves from Africa to America. The kind of wood used to build them, the rigging, the size and shape of the sails, the cabin and below-deck layouts. Everything. He said he spent close to six months exploring every aspect of the ships and became quite an expert on them.

Then, as he began fleshing out the character of Kunta Kinte, it occurred to him that since the beginning of the book is written from Kunta's point of view, all of the information about the slave ships was absolutely irrelevant. All Kunta knew was that the ship was a "big canoe". How the sails were stitched made no difference. It was a boat and it was big and that was it.

So, throughout the book, the slave ship is referred to as a "big canoe". Six months of research rendered useless simply by placing the story from the point of view of a single character.

We all immediately realized the importance of this lesson. For a character to be truly real, he has to know what he knows and nothing more. Except for the commentary in the DVD's special features, the screenwriter won't be doing voiceovers in a film to explain what the character is experiencing. The character's world has to work for the character first, then through the character's experiences, the audience will figure it out.

John August Gives Birth

John August is such a generous guy. And I'm not saying that just to butter him up so he'll read my script. He really is a generous guy. If you've checked out his site (and I highly recommend you do), you've gotten a taste of the vast amount of valuable screenwriting information there.

Now, John's decided to dig his pool of knowledge deeper still. He's just launched jaWiki, a Wikipedia-like compendium of wisdom for the aspiring screenwriter. Like the standard wiki model, it's a place where we can all contribute whatever we can.

He does warn that jaWiki is a bit unstable and could self-destruct at any moment. But, hey...we're not scared. We're tech-savvy scribes, right?

Monday, October 30, 2006

Fall Into High Gear

I haven't abandoned this blog. At least completely. I may have been AWOL for a couple of months, but rest assured I haven't completely forgotten you.

I think Lennon said it best: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

That said, I've always felt that the crispy ambiance of Autumn is a great motivator. While a visible change is certainly in the air, the colored leaves and lowered temps always manage to spark an internal change in me. And this year, that change will be one of a re-commitment to my writing.

Yep, it's time to get serious again.

Our bloggin' buddy, Dave Anaxagoras, has re-committed himself as well, vowing to awake every morning at 6:30am to put in at least one non-interrupted hour of writing. And I'm with him all the way. I have the time in the morning, but I haven't been using it for writing. But now, Dave and I will be battling the page together in spirit. (by the way, gotta get me one of those progress bar thingys.)

Taking on this renewal of writing as a group really is a good way to approach the task. There's peer pressure involved and having a large number of people out there doing the same thing really imbues one with a sense of empowerment. The folks at NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) are gearing up for their annual (every November) "pledge drive" of sorts. Meaning you novelists out there are going to pledge to write a complete novel in just one month. And for us aspiring screenscribes, there's the 14-Day Screenplay. Even though their drive is already over (it ran Sept. 30 - Oct. 13), you can still participate on your own two-week schedule, using their tips and advice.

So, whaddya waitin' for? Let's get writing!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Samuel L. Jackson on a Phone

Okay, this is just plain creepy marketing.

Using this marvel of modern telecommunications technology, you can now have Samuel L. call your favorite victim friend and remind them in his ever-so-tender way that Snakes on a Plane is coming soon. Basically, it asks you some questions about the person and then peppers the movie promo with some personalized comments. He even says the person's name. Of course, I can't imagine Sam sitting in a recording booth, plowing his way through every name in the book, so I'm sure it's some kind of speech-to-text thing that does the trick. The best part (um...I think) is that when the call is sent, the number the person sees on their caller ID is yours.

Now, I can see some great uses for this if Mr. Jackson decided to loan out his famously intense verbal stylings to other phone reminder services. I can hear it now:

"Hey, John...Guess what? It's time to go to work. So, get'cho mutha-f**king ass outta that bed before I come over there, goddamnit! We cool?"

Enjoy and spread the word, mutha-f**ker!

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

A Much Needed Five-Minute Break

Everyone's favorite silky-voiced storyteller, Garrison Keillor, has a new podcast. The Writer's Almanac is a daily, five-minute chat about the highlights of this day in history in the world of writing. And he reads a short poem or two.

A nice soothing escape from the maddening shuffling of index cards.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Lack O' Time...And Sleep

Okay, so I'm sure most of you out there have given up on this blog by now. It's been over two months since I've posted, but I do have a good reason. Really.

My wife and I just had our fourth child.

As you can see, none of us have gotten much sleep lately. But I'm glad to say I'm back and rejuvenated. In the meantime, after doing some work on the previously mentioned script, I've come to the realization that I'm just not ready to tackle that particular storyline. I just feel that my writing just isn't to the level it needs to be to do the story justice. So, onward with a different story - one not included in the list I posted months ago.

My plan is to have a basic treatment done in a few days (by Tuesday) and a full treatment a week after that. I personally find it less stressful to do the treatment first, then the outline. How does that work for the rest of you out there? Does everything come together better for you with an outline first, or a treatment first? Index cards? Or maybe just plain writing the darned thing...

Anyway, it's good to be back.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Writers On a Bus

I decided to give myself a little more time to decide, but I think it's for the best. After some careful consideration and recent changes in my transportation method (more in a bit), I've decided to go with #2 on the list.

I'll be posting more details about the story as I work through it, but for now, let's just say it's reminiscent of Liar Liar.

...Okay, maybe not that reminiscent, but it's in the same ballpark.

As for the transportation changes, after having some car trouble a week ago, and factoring in the skyrocketing price of gas, I've started taking the bus to work.

Now, for those of you in big dense metro areas, the bus is pretty much a fact of everyday existence. Everyone rides it. But here in southeastern Virginia, taking the bus usually means you have no other choice. I really hate to say that there's a bit of a social stereotype associated with using the transit system here, but things are as they are - I'm usually one of the only few white people on the bus. A lot of my friends were somewhat surprised to learn that I've been riding the bus to work - especially surprised when I tell them that the 30-minute commute now takes me two hours. But when I tell them that it's only $1.50 each way, they double-take and say, "Wow, that's cheap!" Yeah, try doing a 40-mile round trip on one gallon of gas. Forget it, Prius Boy!

So far, the only drawback to this change is the added commute time. But as we writers know, two hours is plenty of time to knock out a few scenes. So, the bus is now my morning and afternoon writing office. That's four "writing hours" a day that I don't have when I'm doing the driving.

But I think the best added benefit by far are the variety of people I now encounter everyday. I'm telling you, it could fuel a whole other blog. It's a great chance to people-watch for character ideas.

I'm looking forward to the new adventure - the bus rides and the screenplay, which coincidentally months before had already been assigned the title The Road to Shambala.

Gotta's almost time to catch my office.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Low to the Blogdar

Okay. Enough neglecting this blog. Apologies and all that stuff.

I've been wrestling with a bit of a decision lately regarding various stories that are competing for my time in Final Draft. While I think each one could at least become a first draft, some are probably more marketable than others. But which one to tackle first?
  1. A coming-of-age dramedy about a college student who must choose between the comfortable career path and finding his own true voice. Partly auto-biographical, this material is really close to me and would be pretty easy to write. However, if I'm not careful with this one, it could end up in the "emotionally disaffected man finds true love amidst the strangeness of life" category. (see Garden State) Not that that's a bad thing...
  2. A self-centered advertising exec learns an eye-opening lesson about compassion and letting go of his materialistic side. I've probably done the most up-front work on this one, but still needs some basic story polishing.
  3. A sci-fi thriller about a researcher who finds himself living ahead of everyone else on earth. I think this one has great commercial potential. Only a couple of hurdles...(1) It's based on an existing short story so I'm not sure whether to just go ahead and write it and let the studio handle the rights or secure the rights first, and (2) scenes might be way too long because of the "time difference" between the lead character and everyone else.
  4. A noir-style thriller about a man randomly targeted to take the wrap for a murder. He must unravel an intricate web of clues to find the real killer, while eluding the police who are hunting him. This was an early story idea that I've kept around for a number of years. Nothing new as far as concept goes, but could do with a clever character flaw to make things interesting.
I'd like to start drafting any one of these, but as well all know, it's difficult to devote quality writing time to more than one.

I'm giving myself until this Friday to decide.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

The Buddhist Treatment

Any good writer should never be at a loss for a good story. Most of us can rattle off a good one starting with a "what if..." or a "once upon a time...". But there are those moments when the gears just don't turn, the juice just doesn't flow, and the lake of ideas dries up. Of course, classic story lines have been rehashed so many times in Hollywood that visiting any one of them again would probably send your script on a short trip to the circular file.

Luckily, there are a collection of stories that have been around for hundreds of years, but don't seem to get much attention from filmmakers. These stories are ancient Buddhist tales - known as Jataka tales - and are very much like Aesop's Fables and Christian biblical parables, but with various morals that emphasize Buddhist concepts such as compassion, patience, and honesty.

Jataka Tales - Volume I
Jataka Tales - Volume II

Take some time and check them out and you just might find one that closely resembles the very story you're working on, possibly moving into a direction you hadn't considered. Or maybe you'll find a story to give you the spark for a new script.

Either way, Tashi Delek! ("good luck" in Tibetan)

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Case of the Gotties

As a part two to my previous post, I thought I'd let you all know just how good the holidays were to me...with a little help once again from Google and Yahoo.

Alan got a value meal of an apple pie. they don't have to ask me at the drive-thru anymore...

Alan got a meal that came with a panini.
...can you see where this is going?...

Alan got a full time job working at a Youth Correctional Facility and Debra got a job as a telemarketer.
...I don't know which of us got the better deal...

Alan got a chance to ride the real thing. more training wheels for, what am I riding?...

Alan got a 40-foot whipper after nearly sticking the crux on his second try.
...hey, I could've gotten it on the first try if my foot hadn't slipped...

Alan got a check for $90,210. pay for my private crux-sticking lessons...

Alan got a court order to have the name of my martini bar changed and have me evicted from my room.
...long story...don't ask...

Alan got a offer to go on the road with another local band, LABAMBA and the HUBCAPS.
...formerly known as LABAMBA and the ALL-CAPS...

Alan got a new briefcase and a new med bag.
...guess which one will come in handy at tax time...

Alan got a blackmail note asking for $10,000 ... warned him to stop seeing Hope.
...and if I find the guy who wrote it, I'm sticking a crux in him...

Hope you all had a great holiday, too!