You Had Me at Page Four

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you-had-me-at-hello-tshirt

It doesn’t require a Masters in Creative Writing to know that you have to grab your audience’s attention in the very beginning. When people flip through the books at Barnes & Noble, they don’t say, “The first page is boring, but I think I’ll spend $19.95 on this thing anyway because maybe, hopefully, the other 99.5% of the book doesn’t suck too.”

And in movies, the opening scene has to be, well, awesome, or what’s the point? If you can’t make the first four pages great, what does that say about the rest of the film?

Last night, my husband and I went out to the movies for his birthday. There wasn’t anything playing that we really wanted to see, so we went to 21 and Over, a comedy about college kids and a debauchery-packed night of drinking. The critics’ reviews were terrible, but the fan reviews were pretty good, so we gave it a shot.

It turns out, all the fans who reviewed it were 14 year old kids who think anything with people getting drunk and the word “fuck” in it is a stellar movie.

We did something I haven’t done in years: we walked out. At page 4. The opening was so poorly written that we figured the rest of the movie didn’t have much of a chance. We snuck into Identity Thief, which was just starting in the other theater (also not an award-winner, but it wasn’t total garbage.)

As written by Michael Hauge in his explanation of Story Mastery, “The opening 10% of your screenplay must draw the reader, and the audience, into the initial setting of the story, must reveal the everyday life your hero has been living, and must establish identification with your hero by making her sympathetic, threatened, likable, funny and/or powerful.”

Here are examples of some movies have opened:

Varsity Blues: We learn about Mox and the football culture of the town

Four Weddings and a Funeral: We learn about Charles and all the weddings he has to go to

Never Been Kissed: We learn about Josie and how she’s never been kissed

Heartbreak Kid: We learn that Eddie wants a woman.

13 Going on 30: We learn that Jenna isn’t happy with who she is

Bridesmaids: We learn that Annie wants to feel good about herself, but keeps putting herself into situations that get her the same bad results.

An example of a great opening (in my humble opinion).

American Psycho:

This opening not only illustrates almost exactly who this character is, but it sets the tone of the whole movie and its bizarre humor amidst creepy character details.

Considering all of the above, I wonder if my opening to my new script is as good as it should be. This script has three main characters, so I’m using the first 12 pages or so to spell out the situation each one of them is in. While the beauty of American Psycho’s opening is in the words, the beauty in Office Space‘s opening is in the visual:

I think I frequently rely too much on the words for description. This subject really should be its own separate blog post. Food for thought. Back to work.

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Know What You Write

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When I was 13 I wrote a poem about an old woman. I shared it with my boyfriend who also considered himself a poet. He said to me quite seriously, “Do you know this woman? Do you know what it’s like to be an 80 year old woman? You should write what you know.”

Write what you know

“Writing what you know” is not a novel idea invented by Alex. However, I’ve never forgotten him saying that.

I’ve written many things I didn’t “know”. I’ve written plenty of main characters who are men, plenty of married people when I wasn’t married, people with children when I didn’t have children, and other lifestyles I didn’t “know”. And that’s fine. I mean, if no one wrote what they didn’t know there wouldn’t be any zombie apocalypse movies, right?

There’s also the kind of “writing what you know” when the part you really know is in the subtext- for example, “Big Love“, though not written by Polygamist Mormons, was written by two gay men who said they understand what it’s like to be ostracized in your society, like the polygamists living in the HBO show, because they have lived their lives as homosexuals in a not-always-accepting world. (RIP “Big Love”. We miss you.)

But I recently read that the Writers Guild of America claims that only 27% of their film writers and only 19% of their television writers are female. So what kind of service am I doing to the screenwriting industry by writing main characters who are male? What service am I doing if I don’t write the true female experience? (Men try to, but sorry Judd Apatow, your wife isn’t the only woman in the world.) And as Mitt Romney (though thank God not a screenwriter) said: he knows what women of America need because his wife talks to him.

So my new script, for which I’ve been writing the outline for weeks, is finally ready for page 1. And this one, though intentionally catering to all over-age-13 crowds, speaks the female experience that I understand best: the married one, the mother one, the overworked one, the struggling one, and the hopeful one. (And no, Sarah Jessica Parker is not starring in it and you won’t be left wondering, “I don’t know how she does it!” – though in its defense, was in fact written by a mother of two.)

On to page 1 – see you on the other side!

It’s Not Lice, It’s Confusion

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Monkey scratching

I was the kid in school who never wanted to proof their test before bringing it up to the teacher. I was the kid who as soon as they got to the last line of their essay, they just hit print. I used to have a writing partner who could never let go of a script – he would do rewrite upon rewrite upon rewrite, never believing it was finished. Me? My script is done when I get to page 100.

Okay, in all seriousness, I’m not that sloppy of a writer anymore. Now I proof, I outline, I revise and revise. But it’s in my nature to say, “Are we done? Good. Onto the next.”

I’ve been working on this outline now for a couple of weeks (note: Robert McKee says your outline should take months, but he’s a blowhard windbag so whatever.) I wanna start writing. I don’t know what to do next with my outline, so I want to say, “Are we done? Good. Onto the script!” But I don’t want to get lost writing the script. So my question is…

When is your outline done?

My feeling? Your outline is done “enough” when you can write your entire script without once having to look up at the ceiling, scratching your head. (note: there is nothing wrong with looking up at the ceiling scratching your head when you’re searching for specific words, phrasing, or dialogue. But there should be no looking up at the ceiling, asking yourself “where do I go with this now?”)

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.

Bur I sit here, in the cafeteria of my local Whole Foods, looking up at the ceiling, scratching my head, and asking myself, “Can I start the damn script now?” I guess I’ll know when I get to page 50 and I know (or don’t know) where to go next.

How Doing Your Taxes Can Give You the F*ckits

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Just finished putting together all of our income, expenses, etc. and emailed it off to our accountant. Done.

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However, the IRS (and our accountant) is going to look at the ledger and say, “How are their expenses so much higher than their income?” Well, Mr. IRS Agent, we’ve had a financially complicated year. Between our car needing a heart and kidney transplant, me losing a couple of my internal body parts to a malfunction in my reproductive system, sending our older child to preschool for the first time, buying over $11K in gear and supplies for our business, all while losing our biggest client halfway through the year, can make for some uneven numbers in one’s taxes.

But today is Friday, and you know what that means? It’s a whole new day. Better yet, next Tuesday is the start of a whole new (tax) year. And I’m working on the (final?) revision of a kick-ass screenplay. Oh yes, that’s right- Kick. Ass.

My point? Just because 2012 looked like shitonastick, doesn’t mean you’re not going to be a superstar in 2013. Just because you couldn’t get a boyfriend last year, doesn’t mean you won’t get married this year. Just because your house blew away with some b*tch-of-a-storm named Sandy doesn’t mean you aren’t going to get it all back this year.

And just because you didn’t make a whole lot of money doing what you really love this year, doesn’t mean you won’t be taking Donald Trump out to dinner this year just so you can tell him he’s a douchebag.

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Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun (but great for inspiration!)

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I think it was in The Artist’s Way where I read that you shouldn’t tell people about the spiritual work you’re doing for yourself as their reaction may burst your bubble. Everyone has an opinion about this and that, and sharing with them something as intimate as your spiritual growth (particularly if you know a lot of scoffers) can stall your momentum. The same goes with creative inspiration. Last night I had a great idea for this new project I’m working on. I had been having a difficult time wrapping my head around this new script, as I didn’t know where to go with the story. But last night I figured it out.

Excited, and having an always-supportive husband, I shared it with him this morning. I said, “I figured out what I’m going to do with this script!” And I told him. But as soon as the words began coming out of my mouth, I heard how terrible they sounded. Boring. Dumb. Direction-less. I said, sort of fishing, you don’t like that idea, do you? He replied, “Nope!”

Crushed. Knowing myself, I usually would have taken his “nope” and ran with it all the way into a different career. But this time, I knew better. I realized I haven’t finished the new idea yet. It needed more thinking, more work. It’s a great idea, but it wasn’t ready to be shared… even with him.

Picasso

I mean, if Picasso had gone to his buddy and said, “Hey amigo, I’m gonna paint a whole bunch of shapes and colors that make people and places look all retarded and shit. Whadda ya think?” His buddy probably would’ve said “nope” too.

A Writer By Any Other Name Wouldn’t Smell as Sweet

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When can you call yourself a writer? Or an actor? Or a musician?

Once you’re playing music? Well, I played the piano yesterday, but I’m not a professional musician. Once you’ve acted in an independent film? Well, you didn’t make any money doing it, so can you still call yourself a professional actor? What if you wrote a book? Could you call yourself a writer? I’m writing a blog right now… does that make me a writer?

Work for free

Do I have to wait until I get my first paycheck for writing before I can answer the question from someone: “What do you do?” by saying “I’m a writer”?

This question has (sort of) haunted me since I graduated from college over 12 years ago. I moved to Los Angeles to become an actor, but I worked various jobs to pay my rent. If someone asked me what I did, I was hesitant to say “I’m a teacher”, or “I’m a bartender” because I didn’t really feel like that’s what I was doing. But I wasn’t making any money as an actor, and though I was going on the occasional audition and doing the occasional play or low-budget film, I also felt like kind of a liar to say “I’m an actor”. I pretty much gave up acting after a few years to pursue a career as a playwright and screenwriter. I’ve been doing that for a number of years now. But I haven’t made any money doing it yet.

But every day I work on my script that I intend to sell… yes, for real money. Plus now I’ve got a possible job to write the sequel for a movie that did pretty well a few years back. And that would be for real money too. (I’m not really talking about it until it’s more of a done deal.) In fact, these days I’m working more on my screenplay than I am running my and my husband’s business.

A parent at a music class for my daughter yesterday asked me if I worked, as she saw me without a job on a Thursday morning. I said, “Yes, I’m a writer and I help run our business.” I felt like kind of a poser, a “phony” as Holden Caulfield would call it, but the fact remains that I write. A lot. And I have every intention to make real money real soon.

Phony

As soon as that first paycheck comes in, though, there won’t be any phoniness coming out of my mouth. It’ll be a full fledged, “Yes! I’m a writer!” I guess this means that I believe in the argument that you need to be making money in order to say you do something. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to bring up the fact that I’m also a writer. Because I am.

Let’s Try More Smiling, and Less Hitting, Okay?

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Smiling no hitting

Walking across 96th Street from the east side of Columbus Ave to the west, a woman in an old Toyota turned through the crosswalk only feet before me. It is certainly legal to drive through a crosswalk if the light is green, but I do believe that the law states that no pedestrians may be in the crosswalk at the time. I was not only in the crosswalk, but almost directly in her path.

On a different day, I would’ve reached out and WHACKED her car with my hand (or my water bottle as I did on one occasion) all too ready to bear the consequences of what might come of it (not really- I don’t know how to fight and I hate confrontations.) How could she? Who does she think she is?? It’s a good thing I didn’t have my kids with me, or then I would’ve really been pissed (please note: in actuality, she has absolutely nothing to fear as, again, I don’t know how to fight and I hate confrontations.)

But today I tried something new. As her pseudo-beater of a car made its way past me, though I considered sticking a part of me out to “teach her a lesson”, I decided to smile instead. I smiled as this lovely child of the universe drove past me. “Have a good day,” I thought for her. And though I felt like a hippie with too much weed in my Raisin Bran, I arrived on the corner without a scratch on me, and with a slight smile on my face.

What does this have to do with my writing career, as I now sit here getting ready to continue my revisions on my script? My clear head allows me to think of good ideas, while my angry head helps me to slip into a pit of anguish and anger, which will ultimately cause me to throw my hands up and say “I can’t write today. I suck anyway.” Because I smiled instead, writing may commence.

To the woman in the Toyota, I say, “Have a lovely day.” To myself, I say, “Keep putting the aforementioned weed in your Raisin Bran.”

Point of fact: no weed was put in my Raisin Bran this morning. In fact, I ran out of Raisin Bran a few days ago. But my hippie southwestern husband did make me eggs with beans and salsa this morning and you never know what those Arizonans are gonna do to your food.

May the Schwartz be with you today, my friends. May the Schwartz be with you.

schwartz

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