Crap Shooting Script

I finished the first draft of my first solo screenplay, and it’s not very good. I’m not saying this out of low self-esteem or false modesty or anything like that. I’m usually beyond pleased with my first drafts. But this is badly paced, inconsistent, full of plot-holes, kind of boring, and the main character doesn’t actually do anything. I have some ideas on how to fix it, but I may need to put it down for a little bit before I try.

I learned some important lessons along the way. First is that you can’t write the beginning of a screenplay without knowing how it’s going to end. I can’t do what I do with a novel, and that is write from the beginning and let the story write itself and the characters tell me who they are as I move along. You need a lot more control in a screenplay, which is more rigidly structured than a novel.

You can’t try writing a screenplay as a way of exploring the idea of time and change and your own identity vis-a-vis the identities you embodied in the past. You can write a screenplay that is a look back at your past selves, but you’d better have a really good handle on the characters and plot before you sit down and put pen to paper. Likewise, you can’t be very introspective in a screenplay. There are introspective movies, but that’s generally the work of the director.

Basically, the more I wrote, the more I knew about the characters and the settings and realized that I’d have to introduce these ideas sooner in the story. I came up with an idea about a minor detail from the beginning that should have loomed large through the whole story, but I didn’t recognize the importance of it until I was about a third of the way through. I had an idea that I thought was genius but will be the first thing I cut in the revision.

If I was writing a novel, I’d close my laptop, say “Well done, old chap” (I talk to myself like I’m an upper-class Englishman), and put the notebook on my bookshelf with all the other notebooks for completed and abandoned novels. I’d take a few days to read a novel, and I’d sit down and start my next book. But my screenplay isn’t done, not by a long shot. This is a whole new thing to me, and it’s pretty exciting, actually.

The Road to Tinseltown

I’ve decided that I’m going to write a screenplay. This is a huge undertaking on my part because I have no idea what I’m doing. I wrote, with Shane Van Pelt, a screenplay twenty years ago, and it’s getting great (but not winning) marks in the contests I’ve entered it in, but my teleplay for a TV pilot got excoriated so harshly that I doubted my ability to write again (for about a day). The negative review indicated that I wasn’t properly using the formatting, but they gave me no advice on how to actually do it, so, if I want to learn, I’m on my own.

And there’s the challenge. When I write novels, I’m doing it completely freeform. I write what feels natural, I throw in a few twists, and I decide after sixty thousand words or more that I should probably wrap this up. The only formatting I need to know are paragraph breaks and decent grammar.

But screenplays have, like, so many rules, guys. Teaching people to write screenplays is a book-publishing, webinar industry on its own. Not only do you have the dreaded formatting, you have to worry about a three-act structure, rising and falling action, low points, high points, call to action, and a whole bunch of other save-the-cat details that must go into writing or it won’t even be considered. That involves plotting and outlining.

I can’t stand plotting and outlining. A story will tell itself to me in the process of writing it. I can’t tell it what to do. It’s like an external force.

So I’m going to do something I never thought I’d do. I’m going to read a how-to-write book and see what it has to say. Maybe I’ll learn something.

If you’re curious what this idea is that’s got me so worked up, let me know, and you can become a beta reader for my 350-word pitch.

Production Racket

Late summer, early fall, I decided to try something new with my writing: I was experimenting in getting seen by movie and TV producers. The thing about trying to sell scripts and pitches is that there is a precise science to it. If you don’t do everything 100 percent right, they throw you away, regardless of how good your idea is. There is a whole publishing industry dedicated to how to write screenplays. I have a lot of good ideas, and the closest I came to being seen was a video pitch (in which I tried and failed to not sound like I was reading off of a sheet of paper). If I had made it past that round, I would have been put on a Zoom call with actual producers who would have ruthlessly picked my idea apart and probably made me cry. There are thousands upon thousands of ideas out there for movies, and it is up to these gatekeepers to decide which movie will be made.

My question is this: with this much quality control, why are the vast majority of movies and TV shows rubbish? I was just looking at Netflix for a movie to watch today, and I couldn’t find anything that I hadn’t already seen or didn’t look like a complete waste of my time. Are the ideas I come up with actually worse than these ideas (no, they’re not)? I know that movie-making is a business, not an art, so will I base my success as a writer on how marketable I am?

I don’t know what about my video pitch didn’t sell. Was it my insistence on making the main character a party animal? Was it that I turned the other main character into a stalker? Was it how well I read my script? Was it my tie? I don’t know, I didn’t get feedback. But I know what I want to write, and I will write a tale of drunken debauchery with a side of stalking. I don’t need anybody’s permission to do that.

My experiment ended up costing me about $400 in fees and gave me a bad review that still troubles me to this day, and I’m glad I did it. But I know after all that that this isn’t the way forward for me. I’m sticking to unpublished novels from now on.

Confronting the Sphynx

As I am about to enter this screenplay-writing competition, and, as I’m expecting to lose, it’s got me thinking a lot about the process of trying to get accepted for my writing. My screenplay will likely get passed over because it doesn’t follow the five-act structure, and there’s even more reasons that I don’t know about because there are loads of books on how to write a screenplay, none of which I’ve read. With my novels, I know that there are several technical reasons my queries are getting rejected, despite the fact that, when people read them, they really like them, as is evidenced in my modest number of Amazon and Goodreads reviews (except for that one guy on Goodreads who gave me a mysterious 1-star, as well as that 1-star guy on Amazon who really hated what I wrote).

If there are people so strictly enforcing quality control for the written word, then why is there so much garbage out there? I don’t mean like Two and a Half Men, which was a terrible show but popular enough to last for around ten seasons. I mean the cancelled-after-half-of-a-season kind of shows. The ones that are not well-plotted and lack any memorable or likeable characters and doesn’t connect with an audience, but they still impressed someone enough to hire directors, producers, actors, special effects, and various crews. I’m talking about the dreary, repetitive, badly written books that have made it through an agent, a publisher, and an editor. The first ten pages are what sells your books, so these bad writers must have amazing first ten pages because the rest is just horrible. They’re awful works of entertainment, but they knew the right code words to make it past the gatekeepers. I feel like, if I could figure out how to do the steps precisely, I might have a chance. That means I have to learn the steps intimately, and I don’t really have the patience for that. That’s not why I write.

What does that mean for me? I can’t afford to buy slick covers anymore, so no more self-publishing. Even though she ghosted me, the agent I talked to in April made me think I had at least one book worthy of sending out, and I might get to that later this year. But mostly, I’m going to write. When a contest like this comes up, I’m going to enter, not because I’m expecting to win, but because the challenge of it will appeal to me. Who knows, maybe I’ll do the right dance move and get in the door someday. If I don’t, I’ll keep writing because it gives me joy in a difficult world.

Special Agent, Man

Almost two months ago, I took an online class called, “How to Hook an Agent.” At the beginning of April, if you were paying attention, you may have recalled me stressing out about query letters or about how every other person in my class wanted to sell literature, and I had a superhero romance. Also, as I had not noted, I was the only one in the class with any experience trying to woo an agent.

The last class was a twenty-minute one-on-one with the agent teaching the class, where she would discuss any corrections made to the query as well as the requisite ten-page sample. The agent was incredibly positive about my book. She said there was a market for this kind of thing, and to avoid the label of romance because that’s a whole separate publishing industry that had its own rules and customs. She sent me a list of agents who were looking for work that was more fantastical.

After I explained the book to her a bit so that she might not have gotten from the sample and query, she asked me to send her more of the novel so she could get a feel for it. She told me up front that she probably wouldn’t be interested in it, so it’s not an agent query, but she might have some ideas for how I could better sell it, and she might even be able to give me a few names I can try to query.

I sent fifty-six pages to her about six weeks ago, and I haven’t heard back, and I don’t know what to do. She’s not a queried agent, and she’s not doing this for (potential) money, but as a favor to a student. I don’t even know how many students she’d done this with. Since she’s not a queried agent, then I shouldn’t be afraid of getting rejected. But if what I wrote was good, don’t you think she would have reacted to it by now? I know she loved the first ten pages, so what if the subsequent forty-six were a letdown, and she recommends I stop writing? She probably won’t do that. But I don’t know what to expect. I’ve gone from elation at her asking for more to trepidation at what she might say if I poke the bear.

I will probably write her, that much is clear, but what will I write? I don’t have the slightest clue. I keep getting blocked every time I think about it. And when do I reach out? I know that she will not write me unless I write her first, so what is a good time to allow to pass before I do write her?

This is why I went into self-publishing: it’s all on my schedule. Now I need to wait for someone else, and it’s making me a little crazy. I wish I could just write books and let other people worry about this stuff.

They’ll Be There for You

This is where I admit something weird about myself.

Have you ever been reading a book or watching a TV show or movie, or maybe watching a video essay on your favorite topic or hobby, and you think of the one you’re watching as a friend? I don’t mean they’re speaking to you or anything, but you know them so well, especially in the case of books, where you really get into their head. The extreme of this comes in the form of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob thing a few years back. It’s all the young people who wanted to date Loki, despite the fact that he’s, you know, evil. And lest you think I’m making this a young girl problem, witness the “Not my Doctor” people, predominantly men, who seem to think that the Doctor is a person, not a work of pretend created by a series of writers going back sixty years. One thing that often happens with internet stars is that people leave them cruel, teasing comments that would appropriate for close friends ribbing each other at a coffee shop, but not with a perfect stranger, all because they feel that stranger would get the joke.

If you have felt a connection with a fictional character or online personality, you don’t have to admit it. It’s a common enough occurrence that I know that some of you reading it have gone through it, and it even has a name: parasocial relationships. Literally, it means one-way relationships because the one you’re connecting to can’t share that connection with you. Parasocial relationships are actually quite healthy (unless you’re going to extremes about it, like threatening an actor who plays a particularly despicable character). They develop strong senses of empathy, and those who have these relationships tend to be better friends overall. We spend as much time, if not more, with these made-up people than we do with most real people, so if you’re going to build up a connection at all, it makes sense to form one with this presence in your life.

So you’re wondering where I’m going to confess the weird thing. Have I fallen deeply in love with middle-aged Punky Brewster? Do I think that Addie Larue in the novel I’m reading is the only one who could really get me? Is there someone online I recently propositioned after watching all her videos? Not quite. You may not realize this, but I’m a writer (I know! Shock! It’s almost as if it’s not, like, the only thing I ever talk about!), and as a writer, I create characters. You see where I’m going with this. It takes me about two months to write a novel, and in that two months, I live with these characters. I think about them when I wake up in the morning, when I’m cooking, cleaning, going on long walks, and when I go to bed at night. I infuse them with the traits of people I know and of myself, and I see the world from their point of view, finding the good in anything they do (even the bad guys because nobody sees themselves as the bad guys). For two months, these guys are my life, and then they’re gone. This wasn’t as much of a problem when I was writing a series because I could always return to them. When I wrote the On the Hedge series, I wrote them one after another, for almost a year and a half (those books are much longer than anything I have written since, so they took closer to three, three-and-a-half months a piece to write), and I never had to leave the characters behind. But now that I’m writing one-and-done novels predominantly, they’re gone for good.

It’s weird how much I love these guys because they’re not real. I have made them up. They don’t do anything I don’t tell them to do (even if I do go with the flow and try to let the story tell itself). I should not think of them as real people. Even as friends, they’re a camp friend at the most, one who doesn’t write you after they go home. But I still miss them and even mourn them a little when they’re gone. I wonder if this can even be classified as a parasocial relationship because these lives belong entirely to my whim.

I don’t know if I’m the only writer who feels this way. I can’t be. In a world where I can’t see my friends, these are the relationships I can turn to. I don’t know if this makes me maladjusted or just plain sad, but it’s my life right now. I just finished a novel, and I’m kind of bummed out. Let’s see who I meet with the next one.

Pitching a No-Hitter

I’m taking a class on how to attract a literary agent. I know I told myself that I wouldn’t put myself through this again, that I would be content self-publishing, but this opportunity came about, and I said, “You know what? I’ve got nineteen finished novels. I can take one off the schedule and shop it around.” So here I am. And it all went well until the back half of my first class, when the agent-teacher asked us to read our draft query letters to the whole class.

STUDENT: My book is a collection of literary short stories.

STUDENT: My book is a semi-autobiographical novel about fleeing Romania at the close of the Cold War.

STUDENT: My book is a biography of my grandmother, who came to this country and ended up in a Coca-Cola ad, and everything that happened after.

STUDENT: My book is a series of essays from the perspective of a comedian who has seen the talk-show circuit up close.

STUDENT: My book is a memoir of being a music video director of indie bands in the late eighties/early nineties.

STUDENT: My book is literary horror. [Literary horror is currently the hottest genre in publishing.]

STUDENT: My book is a scathing indictment of Reagan’s War on Drugs and how it permeates through our modern culture.

ME: My book is a superhero romance. [Record scratches. Someone drops a wine glass to the floor. The piano player stops playing. Crickets can be heard clearly in the distance.] I’ll see myself out.

The teacher, to her credit, treated my query with the same seriousness and focus that she treated the others, even the literary horror novel that she was drooling over, and I got a lot of great advice.

But I felt so, so silly, like I went to a big Halloween party, and I was the only one wearing a costume. I have, literally, no idea what I’m doing.

Pros and Conflict

Despite all of the press being focused on Zack Snyder’s Justice League, the fact is, Marvel is the dominant force in the entertainment industry, as they just proved with WandaVision. Some people (I can name several Facebook friends off the top of my head) absolutely loathe them. Some people can take them or leave them. Me, I love them. I’ve seen all 247 of them in the theater, and I will gladly shell out the $20.00 rental price on future movies until this whole pandemic is behind us, and I feel like going back into a theater. But, I don’t know if this is a result of me growing up or just me seeing something a lot and getting tired of it, I’m starting to get kind of bored with the usual conflict resolution in these movies.  

The whole point of a superhero fight is the annihilation of your opponent through violence. Even in Captain America: Winter Soldier, when Cap defeats his brainwashed best friend by refusing to fight and telling him he loved him, there was still a pretty huge battle scene before he took the path of peace. In The Avengers, Iron Man saves the world by sacrificing himself, but not before a full half-hour of the Avengers slaughtering aliens by the dozens. Avengers Endgame also involves a sacrifice by Iron Man, but not before every superhero in the world murders every alien in the galaxy. In WandaVision, a show about how to process grief and loss that ends in the heroine giving up that which she wanted most, the run-up to this is two witches throwing magical laser blasts at each other and two androids throwing each other through walls.  

I suppose I can get behind fights, as long as they end in non-violence of some sort, but what kind of world do we live in when the winner of moral battles is the one who can punch harder? That’s why I hated Zack Snyder’s Superman movies so much—Superman is an aspirational figure of hope, but he breaks a guy’s neck in Man of Steel to save the day. What is the point of taking a man we’ve been raised to believe uses his powers to help people and making him murder someone with his bare hands.  

I suppose I’m as guilty of this as anyone else. In my novel A Fae at the Race (available now at Amazon for $3.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited), the heroes win by casting a spell that releases the world from the glamor of a powerful, magical foe, but to get there, I do include a scene where one of the heroes has to physically battle one of these foes to the death. In Family Business (also available now on Amazon for $3.99 or free with Kindle Unlimited), the secret weapon is extortion, so that’s a step up. The thing is, I’m trying. Now, whenever I write a fantasy book, even one as action-heavy as mine tend to be, I actively try to come up with solutions that don’t involve violence.  

As far as media I consume, I’m not sure where this leaves me. Yes, I will watch The Falcon and the Winter Soldier this weekend, even though it seems to consist mostly of punching. I’ll watch Black Widow when it comes out in May, even though it is also mostly punching, but with Russian accents. I don’t hate violence, I just don’t like that it’s regarded as the only solution. I like fast-paced plots, and I like plucky protagonists who outsmart their foes. I don’t like a lot of comedies, and character-driven dramas don’t really interest me. This leaves me with not a lot of choice. I guess I’ll just keep looking.  

Hedging my Bets

When I was first writing the books that would make up my Urban Fantasy series, On the Hedge, my ex-wife asked me what I planned to do with all of them (I was about three in at this point). I told her nothing. I was writing the books for the sake of writing the books, and I didn’t want to put myself through the soul-crushing hell of trying to find an agent over some fluff I cranked out at weird hours of the morning.

Today, the first book in that series (The Web of Nightmares) is out on Kindle and Kindle Unlimited, and the reception has been … disappointing. I posted a link to the book onto an Urban Fantasy group page I follow, and the response was tepid. What did I do wrong? Was my blurb uninteresting? Did I pick a bad title? It the series name lousy? Is the book itself rancid garbage? I know it’s not the cover because the cover is amazing.

What do I have to do to get those people’s attention? Some of them like heavy action, some prefer more psychological drama. Some want romance, some won’t read a book with a hint of romance in it. Some want heroes, some want heroines. Some want vampires, some loathe vampires. A lot of them won’t even look at a book that’s self-published. It’s almost like they’re individual people with individual tastes or something. I could make myself crazy trying to figure out what they want.

So I’m not gonna. I’ve thought long and hard about this, and I’m not going to do anything different. (I might pay for advertising, though.) What was the whole point of this exercise I’m undertaking this year? Was it to become a bestseller, to quit my job, to save up for a vacation, to make money? No. It was to give my books the covers they deserve, to have a website and an author’s page on Amazon and a long list of credits on Goodreads. To have a physical novel in my hands that I can autograph for anyone who’s interested (coming in July). It’s to give me a goal to write toward. It was to make my books available, how I want them available, for anyone to see if they’re interested. To maybe pick up a few readers here and here. Money would be nice. A little notoriety would be nice, but you need a lot of luck, a much thicker skin, and a willingness to do a lot of things that aren’t writing to have that, and I have none of those things.

Do I write for the fame? To reach the widest variety of people to give them what they want? No. I write for me. I write to see words and situations and a style that I can’t get anywhere else. I write to process grief and trauma and philosophy. I write so that I can relive events in my life from a different perspective. I write to live out a fantasy of me, whether that makes me a monster-fighting witch, a sleazy philanderer, an out-of-control tomboy, or an IT person still in love with an old flame. None of these reasons are for the money, and I steadfastly refuse to change. This won’t make me a success, but I don’t want to be a success. I want to be a writer.

So stay tuned. This is going to be a big year for me. And, for the love of God, buy some of my books. I’d like to sell at least a few copies.

Facing the Times

I was just thinking about Kuchisake-onna. Do you know who she is? She’s a Japanese urban legend. She’s either the ghost of a model who had some bad plastic surgery or abused wife, or she is a dark spirit that roams the country, or a demon. The official name for her kind is yokai, which could mean ghost, spirit, or demon, or all three. The folklore isn’t clear. Like most yokai, she follows a script, and only by knowing it can you expect to get out alive.

Imagine you’re walking down the dark streets of Tokyo in 2019 or earlier, and a woman approaches you wearing a surgical mask. She will ask you, “Am I beautiful?” Being polite, you answer that yes, she is. She removes her mask to reveal that her mouth has been split open from ear to ear. She will ask again, “Do you still think I’m beautiful?” If your answer is to be brutally honest and say no, or if you’re too busy screaming in terror, she will slit your mouth open to match hers, and in recent tellings, she will do it with a pair of comically large scissors. If you continue to be polite and say that she is beautiful, she will leave you alone without a word. And then, while you sleep that night, she will murder you in your bed. If you think you can get out of it by saying she isn’t beautiful up front, she will decapitate you right away, probably with those scissors.

The thing is, once Kuchisake-onna spots you, you’re in it for the long haul, so you need to be prepared. At any point, before or after she shows her face, you throw a handful of hard candies at her, she will be distracted by those, and you can get away safely. The best way to get away without having to stock up on Jolly Ranchers or Werther’s Originals is to answer her, either time when she asks if she’s beautiful, with, “You’re average.” This is such a departure from the script that she’ll just wander away, the encounter forgotten.

Kuchisake-onna is a bit of a celebrity in Japan. They’ve made her the subject of a number of horror movies. As far as I know, she never made it into an episode of Supernatural, but she did appear in the short-lived CW show Constantine as a minor villain. Honestly, she’s got a lot of potential as visual horror, but you probably couldn’t make an entire movie about her.

I was thinking about her today, as I was in the supermarket, and I saw a woman walk by with stunning eyes. That’s all of her I could see because it’s 2020, and it led me to wonder what she could be hiding under that mask. And then I remembered that Japan has been asking that question for centuries. I wonder if Kuchisake-onna has been getting around a little more in Japan, if she’s feeling less conspicuous and a little more relaxed. It’s hard to be suspicious of the woman in the mask when everybody’s got one.