Inside this writer’s head

I’m halfway through the Clarion West Write-a-thon and having a great time working on screenplays and thinking about a special project…and telling my sponsors all about my process, technique, thinking and feeling in weekly letters. Nearly 8,000 words so far, with many more to come.

Here’s a taste:

From A Writer’s Journey, Letter #1:
It’s not enough to just write every day. Writers have to think as well as write.
You might be surprised how many writers do not like thinking. How many writers want creation to be some kind of spontaneous magic. I was one of those writers for longer than I care to admit, and it brought me nothing but heartache and insecurity. I wish I had learned sooner to embrace one of the essential tensions of writing: it requires both unconscious and conscious work; both magic and clear, cold decision-making. Anyone who is unwilling to make their storytelling process conscious will never be a consistently good writer. Ever. I absolutely believe this to be true, and I should know: I spent years wondering why I couldn’t be consistently good before I finally sucked it up and started analyzing – and altering – my own process.
From A Writer’s Journey, Letter #2:
Ideally, I should accomplish this sequence in about 11-15 pages. Currently I’m at page 31 or so.
That sound you just heard? That was the producer’s head exploding ☺.
The thing is, this is a normal part of my process. I have a basic plan, and as I begin to write to it, I also begin to make deeper discoveries about the characters and their relationships. I am willing to follow my nose down some of those trails to see where they lead, and that means I write long. I write to explore, and I write to discover; but I also discipline myself to write within the basic beats that I have already established so that I can actually achieve some results. If I envision a story about star-crossed lovers in Chicago and then set all my scenes on the moon instead… well, that’s counterproductive.
From A Writer’s Journey, Letter #3:
Let’s talk about “on the nose.” Remember The Sting, when the con men would signal each other by touching their nose? It was how they signaled that something important was happening. It’s also a phrase we use in English to mean exactly or precisely. In writing, it means that there is basically no subtext: the characters tell each other exactly and precisely what they are feeling in dialogue, or the writer tells the reader in exposition (which is like being hit on the nose with a hammer).
What I did was a subtle kind of on the nose. By making Rae’s every response driven by her baggage, I hammer home to the reader Look, she’s acting just like a person with baggage, she must have some! Oh look, she’s acting like that again! I think we’ve got some baggage here… It’s not that she says her subtext out loud: she does it out loud all the time, if that makes sense. She is Clearly Troubled. She may as well be wearing a badge.

I’m doing my best to give my sponsors a peek behind the curtain, because my sponsors rock. They are helping to ensure the stability and sustainability of Clarion West, and they have become part of my Layla’s. You can be a part of it too, and spend some time inside my writer’s head. Sponsor me with a donation to Clarion West, and I will send you a full set of past letters, and all letters to come. There is no minimum donation: every dollar helps Clarion West change writers’ lives, and we are grateful for them all.

Thanks for considering it.

Enjoy your day.

The creative tango

In September, Slate Magazine ran a fascinating series of articles by Joshua Wolf Shenk examining the dynamics of creative relationships. I’ve been reading them over and over: they speak to me very deeply of my own experience with both Nicola and my screenwriting work. I have been having conversations in my head with Shenk and planning blog posts, but you know, I keep finding more internal paths to follow, more thinking to do, and so this is a long way of telling you I got nothin’ (big smile to everyone on the internet).

Or perhaps it’s better to say that I’ve got so much, so deep, that I am not sure what to share or where to start. There’s something in these ideas that feels so essential to me, so defining…. I have been, at times, one of the most solitary people I know. I value my singularity, my individuality, my autonomy, the particularity of my vision, all that precious me me me stuff that artists get to acknowledge publicly to an extent that other people aren’t always allowed. But I know that my writing — my core identity — would not be what it is without my creative relationships. Me you me you me me me…

If you’re interested, go take a look. Start here, and then follow the links through to Shenk’s analysis of the Lennon/McCartney relationship (both parts). Let me know what you think.

And enjoy your day. In spite of rain and the vagaries of life, I’m enjoying mine.

Læta Kalogridis talks about screenwriting

I haven’t been out of my editing/writing cave in a while, and I’m missing the movies. I like matinees with quiet grownup audiences and fresh popcorn. I like that immersion in story…

But right now it’s all about the Netflix, and that’s good too. There’s lots on our list right now that I’m looking forward to, including Shutter Island. I’m always curious to see how writers handle adaptations of fiction like this, that has an essential secret at its heart. It’s easier to keep these kinds of secrets in prose, it seems to me, easier to bring the audience into the mystery without making them feel jerked around.

And so I was interested to read this interview with Shutter Island screenwriter Læta Kalogridis. I thought I’d be reading about adaptation: instead, I found a very thoughtful discussion of women in Hollywood, urgency and violence in narrative, and a lot more.

And she’s from Winter Haven! (*Tampa native waves at Læta Kalogridis through the internet*)


Shallow into deep

Monika Bartyzel at Cinematical has a great post on recognizing — and therefore bringing more attention to — unconventional roles for women. You know, the kind where women are strong, heroic, active, and maybe even over 40! (— Oh my god, Martha, what did she just say? My brain is melting! — Just breathe, George, just breathe. Remember it’s only a blog.)

No, it’s more than that, George. The day of strong, varied, tough, angry, competent, heroic, tragic, big-as-life grown-up women is coming, and I aim to be there. Because it all starts with the script. I’ve talked before about the kind of women I want to write… and you know what? I should be doing some of that right now.

But before I get busy, let me point you to Bartyzel’s post. Be sure to follow her link to the Hollywood Reporter article that sparked her thinking, and then read her post on the feedback-cycle possibilities for making the pool deeper and wider for women’s roles.

Me, I’ll be working on that. Enjoy your day.

I can haz bad science

Here’s an examination of bad Star Wars science by John Scalzi that made me howl.

And cringe, as well. I’ve said before that my fiction tends to wave at science on the way past, and that’s because I’m not Science Gal… but there’s currently one Big Science Clunker in my screenplay that I have gone down on my virtual knees to try to fix; the powers that be, however, are so in love with it as a metaphor that they think no one will notice the bad science. I’ll keep trying: but Scalzi, when the time comes, if you cannot be kind, then at least please be this funny…


In the time I’ve been working on my screenplay, I’ve written — well, it depends on how you count it. I’ve written at least 35 “official” 100-110 page drafts, meaning that they are considered “finished” enough to send to a wide circle of readers for comments, or to submit to the co-producers, agencies, directors, etc. I’ve probably written another 7 million couple thousand pages of script either as part of my private writing process (get something down on paper, hate it, delete it, write something else…) or as part of my collaborative process with my executive producer: we often like to work out ideas together, so there’s a lot of trading pages/ideas/notes back and forth as a scene or a sequence takes shape. This approach can/does drive many people straight over the edge (waves through the internet to the director, the executive producer’s girlfriend, and the world’s most patient sweetie). But it works for us; and more importantly, it works for the script.

However, I’ve got to also learn to work in a more traditional Hollywood model: the spec script, and the assignment. In an assignment, execs throw a bunch of story requests/ideas/notions at the writer; the writer goes off in a room and writes the requested movie; she sends it to the execs, who love it except can the protagonist be a man instead, or if she has to be a woman can she just be a little more likable, and oh by the way can we change the setting from a space station to an ancient Mayan temple, that won’t be hard, right? The writer blinks and argues and tries to accommodate, and at the next draft the execs decide the writer Just Doesn’t Get It At All, fire her, and get some “fresh eyes” (another writer) on her movie.

Okay, it doesn’t always happen this way every time, but it does happen to everyone — as far as I can tell, there is no career screenwriter who has escaped it. I’ve already been through it once in a minor key, and it was no fucking fun; as you may imagine, I’m not so much looking forward to the full orchestra version.

So how do screenwriters keep from going full-on fruit bat crazy? They write spec scripts — their own stories, characters, settings, plot, etc. Spec scripts are also the way that most new writers break into the system: an agent or manager or producer sees promise and talent in a script they’ve written. Sometimes that spec script will get optioned; sometimes it will simply be a writer’s ticket into one of those assignment meetings. So no matter how you slice the pie, spec scripts are part of the mix.

It’s very much like me to learn by jumping in the deep end. Did you learn to swim as a kid? Remember the instructor giving you his most trustworthy smile and holding out his arms and saying Swim to me, just swim to me!, and then once you committed yourself, he just kept stepping backwards? Yep, that’s my life. I’ve spent three years screenwriting under a particular set of professional circumstances — an assignment structure, a writing contract, an intensive collaborative relationship with an executive, constant notes, agency coverage, studio interest, studio rejection, casting submissions, refocusing the script through the lens of a director’s vision, yadda yadda. It’s been exactly the right way for me to learn. It’s been amazing. But now it’s time for adult swim: see the pool, decide where to enter, decide where to swim to. See my own movie as opposed to paddling enthusiastically toward someone else’s vision.

This post is much longer than I intended, which is also very much like me, and I am always grateful for the patience of any readers who follow these long, wandering trails of words to their originally-scheduled destination. Which in this case is to report that I’ve started learning how to write screenplays a little more formally (grin): I am reading a book. Actually, I’ve read a long list of books these last years, but my hands-down favorite right now is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder. I’m finding it enormously useful as a doorway into this next part of my screenwriting adventure: Kelley writes a spec script.

Snyder’s first step in his recommended writing process is the (dreaded) logline — the one-sentence precis of the film that makes everyone want to hear your pitch/read your script/see the movie. This is million-dollar advice for someone like me, who is more temperamentally inclined to write a whole script and then try to puzzle out the logline, as if it were a marketing tagline. But Snyder’s point, and he’s right, is that figuring out the logline first, and really nailing it, helps your script be better from word one: spend the time to get the logline right, and as a writer you can unpack the structure, key characters, tone and setting of the script in a way that keeps everything consistent and integrated. I’ve heard so many stories of screenwriters pouring their hearts into a script, and then being unable to frame an interesting or cogent logline from the result; and discovering that in fact, it’s because the script wasn’t coherent enough to hang off of a single sentence.

So here’s what I did yesterday. I took myself off to Beth’s Cafe, my favorite Seattle diner and the spiritual home of Noir, for my own private Logfest. It was hot and the air conditioning was broken, so the front and back doors were open. The place was packed. I got lucky — people eating alone have to sit at the counter when the rush is on, but the little table-for-one (which is really half a booth right next to the cash register) had just opened up, so I had space to spread out. I had coffee (it’s a diner, dude, gotta have coffee!) and a patty melt and fries and lots of water, and I wrote loglines. A lot of them. Instead of wandering around in the depths of emotional moments of cool characters, I tried to see the spine of a movie in my head and write it down in the most specific and interesting way I could. The goal was to have lots of ideas, not to write the perfect logline (that’s real work), and to see if I could in fact make a leap from “having random ideas” to seeing the skeleton of a possible movie.

Beth’s was full of all the people of the world: employees from the local gun shop and auto repair place and hair salon; dewy-faced college girls wearing sundresses and the excited air of living dangerously (I am not at all sure why Beth’s should feel dangerous, but you can always tell that vibe when it walks in the door…); a couple of guys who had clearly been up all night drinking; a traveling businessman whose now-40-year-old daughter worked at Beth’s back in the day. A family in the booth behind me had one of Beth’s infamous 12-egg omelettes, which are served on a giant pizza pan. There was much chatter-banter between the cook and the servers and the guy who was trying to keep the ice machine working (Hey, the bread is melting! Honey, you take a counter seat, we only let the best people sit there. Oh, don’t listen to him, he likes Madonna!)

After my food, I ordered a chocolate milkshake and ate it with a spoon while the grill sizzled and the cook called Order up! and the speakers played Creedence and Jimi and Van Halen: and I believe there is no other restaurant in Seattle where I can dance in my seat with a chocolate milkshake and a faraway look in my eye without drawing a single second of notice.

I sat for two hours, ate about two thousand calories, had twenty ideas and a really, really good time. And came away feeling focused for the first time in ages: as if I’ve been knocking around in a huge dark room and finally found a slightly open door. So Logfest was a success. One of these ideas will become my first spec script: several of the rest will become alternate pitches, things that I could write with a few weeks’ prep work. There’s still a ton of work to do, but I no longer feel as though there’s only the old way to do it.

Beth’s Cafe and Save The Cat may have saved my ass yesterday. It was a good day.

The why

A handful of books by Barbara Hambly — the first three books of The Darwath Series and the first two Sun Wolf/Starhawk books — are on my shelf of old friends, full of people I’ve traveled with often in my head and still find good company. One reason I go back to any book repeatedly is that if I’ve changed in some way, my experience of the book changes too. I see new things; I feel old things differently; in an utterly familiar landscape, I suddenly find myself in a place I’ve never been.

I love those moments. I love that stories can be elastic, can stretch or reach or go deeper with us. I suppose this is why I shake my head at the academic approach to fiction, the focus on nailing down what a story means. Well, who are you when you read/see/hear it? Meaning is participatory.

And so, several weeks ago, a passage I’ve read at least 20 times in the last 25 years suddenly seemed printed in neon, as if a hand reached up from deep inside me, flicked my brain hard, and said Pay attention, this one’s for you:

“Success in war,” he went on, “is measured by whether or not you do what you aim to — not by whether you yourself live or die. The success of a war is not measured in the same terms as the success of a fight. Succeeding in a war is getting what you want, whether you yourself live or die. Now, it’s sometimes nicer to be alive afterward and enjoy what you’ve fought for — provided what you’ve fought for is enjoyable. But if you want it badly enough — want others to have it — even that isn’t necessary. And it sure as hell doesn’t matter how nobly or how crudely you pursue your goal, or who makes allowances or who condescends to you in the process. If you know what you want, and you want it badly enough to do whatever you have to, then do it. If you don’t — forget it.”
The silence in that single corner of the half-ruined tower was palpable, the shrill grunts and barked commands in the hall beyond them seeming to grow as faint and distant as the keening of the wind across the moors beyond the walls. It was the first time that he had spoken of war to them, and he felt all the eyes of this small group of tiny women on him.
“It’s the halfway that eats you,” he said softly. “The trying to do what you’re not certain that you want to do; the wanting to do what you haven’t the go-to-hell courage — or selfishness — to carry through. If what you think you want can only be got with injustice and getting your hands dirty and trampling over friends and strangers — then understand what it will do to others, what it will do to you, and either fish or cut bait. If what you think you want can only be got with your own death or your own lifelong utter misery — understand that, too.
“I fight for money. If I don’t win, I don’t get paid. That makes everything real clear for me. You — you’re fighting for other things. Maybe for an idea. Maybe for what you think you ought to believe in, because people you consider better than you believe in it, or say they do. Maybe to save someone who fed and clothed and loved you, the father of your children — maybe out of love and maybe out of gratitude. Maybe you’re fighting because somebody else’s will has drawn you into this, and you’d rather die yourself than tell her you have other goals than hers. I don’t know that. But I think you’d better know it — and know it real clearly, before any of you faces an armed enemy.”
— from The Ladies of Mandrigyn by Barbara Hambly.

When the student is ready, the teacher appears. Sometimes sideways — because suddenly for me this passage is not about war, it’s about essential clarity. It’s about the fact that all the guts, risk and insane persistence I can muster is not enough if I am not clear why I’m spending them: why I’m spending myself — my time, my fierce but not boundless energy, my attention, imagination, love, fear, capacity for joy, my hunger for growth. All my life I have seen something I want and literally thrown myself at it. And I am only understanding now (and the smack smack smack you hear is my hand against my head) that the times it works best — St. Paul’s, Clarion, Nicola, Solitaire, Dangerous Space, screenwriting — are the times when I am crystal clear about not just what I want, but why.

I value clarity: specificity in writing, goals that are definite and delineated, an understanding of my options. I work especially hard to be clear about my values; it’s important to me to know why I do things. That been part of my puzzlement these last weeks, trying to understand why this small part of a story is suddenly making me scratch my head (which often comes before the smacking, it turns out). I’ve been telling myself, I get the importance of clarity, so what’s the deal here?

And here’s the deal. I know I’m a writer — real clear about that — but I’m at a crossroads. I have to decide on my next project, and I find it is no longer simply a question of what, but why?

Three years ago, I threw myself into revising the screenplay that is based on my novel. If it’s true that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert, then I’ve easily got 4,000 already, and I got it in six- or eight- or ten-week-long marathons of 12 to 14 hours a day, with all the fatigue, fear, frustration, hope, hopelessness, exultation, and sheer bloody suck-it-up-and-start-again that important struggles bring with them. It wasn’t a war, at all, but it was just like one: it required that I test Nicola’s patience, sacrifice things I wanted, make myself utterly vulnerable, fail in public, and learn some things that please me and others I really would rather not have known. And it required me to endure. I got so fucking tired; but I am crystal clear on why I did it, and regardless of whether it ever gets on screen, it’s one of the best choices I’ve ever made.

And now we have a script that genuinely rocks, and although I will continue to work on it — there are always more changes, more improvements, more sandpapering to do — it’s also time for me to move on. I have to find the next thing to fall in love with, to begin spending myself on. And what I’m understanding now (hah, and you thought I’d left my point in the dust) is that I have to find a different why.

I have at least two novels and three screenplays coming to life in me right now. It’s no longer a question of which of these stories am I burning to tell — these days, if they don’t burn, they don’t stay with me long. Life is too short not to be on fire for my work. But I must choose. So if a novel, why? If a screenplay, why?

Part of the reason that why is so important is that I am finally understanding I can no longer cling to the strategies that have worked so well for me. In the words of the passage above, a war isn’t the same as a fight. I can’t just throw myself at something and hope it’ll all work out. If the project is fiction, well, I’ve got way beyond my 10,000 hours there: I’m an expert, and I don’t have to run into a wall at 100 mph over and over and over to make it happen. If the project is screenplay, then I’m no longer the beginner who needs to do twice as much work as someone else in order to simply keep up: and, as necessary as that constant 100 mph crash was to my beginning, it won’t help my learning in this intermediate stage.

I’m comfortable with the crash. I did it with the screenplay, I did it with “Dangerous Space,” and it worked. And therein lies the trap: because I’ve been trying to decide what to write next as if I would automatically write it the same way, but you know, that won’t work anymore. It’s a beginner’s approach. If I keep using it, it will simply ensure that I don’t learn how to be an expert — how to be conscious, efficient, aware, intentional — no matter how many hours I practice or how fast I run at the wall.

I have been stuck halfway between what and why.

This isn’t a war, but it’s just like one. Swinging around a sword with my eyes closed will get me exactly nowhere. I’m going to have to be just as clear about what I want next, and just as bloody-minded about getting it. But I have to find a new path. It’s no longer enough to just do, do, do, because although I’m good at that, I also see that it will not get me where I want to go.

When I was younger, I found my essential self through doing. Now I have to find it through the why.

A little insane…

A self is deciduous, it leafs out as one grows, changes with one”™s seasons, yet somehow stays briskly the same. The brain composes a self-portrait from a confetti of facts and sensations, and as pieces are added or removed the likeness changes, though the sense of unity remains, thanks to well-furnished illusions. We need illusion to feel true.
A medley of different selves accompanies us everywhere. Some are lovable, some weird, some disapproving of each other, some childish or adult. Unless the selves drift too far apart, that solo ensemble works fine and copes well with novel events. As the psychoanalyst Philip M. Bromberg writes in Standing in the Spaces: “Health is not integration. Health is the ability to stand in the spaces between realities without losing any of them. This is what I believe self-acceptance means and what creativity is really all about — the capacity to feel like one self while being many.”
— Diane Ackerman, from An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain

I love these ideas: they reflect my experience of myself as a person and a writer, and I so admire when I see other writers working with them. And so I thought of them again as I was reading screenwriter Craig Mazin’s post about the insanity necessary to create good characters — which I imagine as standing between the spaces of my selves in order to create a self that isn’t me, and to make her so real that her story becomes real for you too.

And of course it’s not only writers who do this. As Mazin points out, we all do it when we dream (hmm, well, okay, I know people dream differently, but I tend to assume that things like this are hardwired…). And I suspect that there are many folks in the world, like me, who spend part of our lives enjoying “waking dreams” — for me, these are an odd but very enjoyable balance between seeing a private movie in my head and feeling/behaving as though I were really living it. It happens a lot with music, which is one of the reasons I love music so much. But these moments can come anytime, and I know they aren’t “real,” but they sure are real to me.

Is that insane? I don’t know. If it is, then it’s even better for me that I’m a writer and have made accommodation with it, have put some skill and framework around it. Have made a door for it to more safely open and peer out into whatever it is we mean by the “real” world. (More safely for whom, you ask? Well, that’s the real question, isn’t it?).

I hope all your selves are having a lovely day.

Hollywood XX…

… as in, what about those of us without that Special Y Chromosome? How’s it hanging for us in Hollywood?

Here’s an existential cry from a young woman in the film industry who wonders where are the women who will help her, and help her to help herself. Where are the extended hands, the mentors, the nurturing? Where are all the feminists?

I wish I could find this person and give her a hug. Buy her a beer or three. And tell her that in this, as in many things, gender doesn’t matter the way she wants it to. Women are not a Unified Front any more than writers or vanilla ice cream lovers or any other group of people. Commonality is no guarantee of understanding or support, even for people whose commonality is that they’re getting tromped on. Shared experience doesn’t necessarily produce shared perception or shared behavior.

My limited experience of Hollywood is that it’s extremely gendered in many ways — so much so that I, even with my southern background, feminist roots, media consciousness, and understanding of the history and power of socialization, am still blinking at the extent of it. I have been… hmm, surprised isn’t the right word, it’s something more like ruefully unsurprised to find that all strong women are not my sisters. And so I feel for this woman. It’s a real shock to find out that people you look up to will shit on you because they don’t know any better, or because you’re not important to them, or just because they can.

But here are two hard lessons. The first is that being a woman doesn’t automatically make someone a grownup. The second is that no one owes us help.

I think it’s almost always better to help each other: it’s a fundamental human impulse, and a good one. It saves lives and souls, and it binds us together in ways that shape history. It is a grownup thing to do. But it’s not a rule, or a right. So I give help and hope for it in return. I value those for whom helping is a value. But I don’t expect it, ‘specially in Hollywood, and I am learning not to judge others by their unwillingness to help in any individual circumstance (which is for me the harder lesson).

Most of the time, help comes to us either in some random way (anything from small generosity to emergency response) or specifically because of a personal relationship. And relationships aren’t with women, or men, or any other categorical noun: they are with people. If I were drinking beer with this young woman, I would say Find your people. And make sure they are grownups. Chronological age doesn’t matter: what is important is a perspective that isn’t simply me me me, a perspective that recognizes that there’s probably enough pie out there for all of us, and that helping someone else get their piece of pie doesn’t mean I have to do without.

Finding those people takes time, but it does work. And it’s one of the challenges of youth that when we need real, concrete help, we often don’t have the relationship web to find the grownups we need. Which is why in spite of everything I’ve just said about no one owing anyone, I’d still like to kick the ass of every woman in Hollywood who’s shit on a less experienced woman. Because it’s wrong to diminish other people, women or men, as the primary path to success (if there is any meaning left to that word when you have to leave track marks on someone else to get it). It’s wrong to spit in someone else’s pie. And it’s more hurtful when it comes from someone with whom we hope for commonality, and whom we have mistaken for a grownup.

It’s good that women are finding more power in the film business (or anywhere else) — it hurts when we don’t see ourselves reflected in the culture. And it hurts in a different way when the only role models we find are people that we’d never want to actually be like.

I’ve talked about my vision to make things a little better for women in films. And here’s a group of young women writers who are doing it for themselves. Good on ’em. I hope they’ll keep helping themselves, and each other.