Transitions, timing, and the camera.

Star Wars: A New HopeOne of the biggest differences I’m beginning to notice between screenwriting and novel writing is in the transitions, timing, and position of the camera. Recently, I’ve been taking time to make notes on transitions and timing in some of the shows I watch. I spent four hours watching the two hours of the first Star Wars movie. As I watched, I made note of each scene transition, the time it occurred, and the primary characters in the scene.

Through this kind of analysis I have been trying to piece together the way a movie comes together from a script perspective. I’m the kind of person who likes to deconstruct something, to pull it to pieces so that I can understand how all the parts fit together. So, by deconstructing my favourite shows I have been learning a lot and coming to see a new level of intricacy in what I watch. When you examine the artistic sense of these shows you begin to see layers you never imagine while watching the surface.

One of those incredible layers is revealed in the last few scenes of the movie in Star Wars. Luke and Han have freed the princess and returned her to the rebel forces. The rebels have analysed the Death Star plans and discovered a weakness where a single-man fighter spacecraft could get past the station’s defences. They then proceed into a beautifully structured battle scene that transitions so many times I gave up trying to document every time the point of view shifted. In the end I had to decide that the whole battle must be a single scene made up of tiny one, two, and three second shots. I can’t get my head around how that must have come together in the studio. I imagine it took a lot of work and that the editors who pieced it all together are geniuses.

After watching that scene and feeling that awe over the incredible complexity that comes together in just a few minutes of screen time and encompasses a complete Hero’s Journey in and of itself, I had to go back to the script to see how it was written. Can you believe that every single one of those camera angles was in the script? It’s not a director or editor deciding, “ok we’ll snip to this here, cut to that there, then come back to him, and then give a shot of her”. Lucas wrote all of it into the script.

I hadn’t really thought about how complicated the script must get sometimes. When you write a novel, a scene like that unfolds in a continuous stream of narrative. It might be a handful of paragraphs, snippets of dialogue, and a sense of intensity. In the script it is scene change after scene change, cut to this, cut to that, interior, exterior, space, base, pilot one, two, three, four, etc.

What’s more, the speed of these transitions feel like a deliberate tool to increase the sense of conflict. The pace is directly affected and the more the scene flips from one camera angle to another the greater the tension. A long panning shot sets its own pace while jumping between one x-wing fighter to another increases the pace and increases the tension. Does that kind of visual sense come naturally to a writer or is it something we can learn? Is it something Lucas did deliberately or did he just instinctively write that into the script without realising the impact it has on viewers?

As I think about it, it comes back to the pictures. How much of that scene did Lucas picture inside his head as he wrote it? Did it play out like that in his mind’s eye? How much of that came in the drafting and how much from careful redrafting and redrafting?

I’m still trying to get a visual sense of what I want to write. I get increasingly frustrated about my lack of pictures. I still think it’s because I don’t let go of words and give myself enough quiet time just to visualise. It’s difficult to be so obsessed with language that I can’t just be. I can see why people have to consciously choose to learn to meditate. It can be challenging to just be at peace within oneself enough to embrace that kind of silence. I need to give myself into the silence so that I can watch the movies play out in my mind.

Catalysts for change and deconstructing great scripts.

I’ve been toying with an idea that stemmed from a question I asked myself a few days ago. What could be the catalyst for change that would turn a widower escaping his grief by obsessing with his work into a dedicated family man who is committed first and foremost to the needs of his son and finally healing from the death of his wife? I might not have asked it in quite such detail but in essence I wondered, why does he change? The answer has taken days to really come together and it transforms some of my earlier ideas.

In Expanding the cast, juggling the spotlight, and pictures not words, I mused that the location in Washington D.C. lends itself to sinister warehouses and CIA conspiracy. I couldn’t quite justify that dark angle. It wasn’t coming together in vivid imagery beyond the idea of dingy warehouses and dark suits. So, when I tied the concept together with a catalyst for change I started to see new pictures. I asked myself, what is it that must happen for this father to change so drastically. Now of course the answer seems pretty simple. He’s lost his wife, so what would bring him back to his son? The potential loss of the son, of course.

There are numerous ways this could come about. With the alien angle, abduction was a definite maybe, but while I’ve got a science fiction slant, what I really see here is a drama. I didn’t want to make the story too E.T. heavy. Besides, there are enough earth-bound threats to a child in our reality that we don’t have to look beyond this galaxy for danger. I need to flesh out the details of the kidnapping more but I’ve got a definite sense that aliens are not to blame. The father might assume that they are at some point but ultimately they’re not.

What I really saw transform when this idea started to become real for me was my CIA agent. Remember, I talked about her in some detail because I do have a starchy image of her in my mind. It was interesting to see how malleable that picture became when challenged. Rather than CIA, she became FBI. Rather than being a stiff and straight-laced CIA agent, she became a gritty, much-too-much-heart, head of an elite Child Abduction Rapid Deployment (CARD) team. It’s easy to imagine that these agents grow detached from the crimes they investigate. It must be heart-breaking to deal with families grieving, children battered and broken, and the dark violence of the criminals who exploit children. It would be so easy to make her aloof and untouchable because how else would you cope with that emotional gauntlet every day. But I can’t feel her that way. Instead, she comes across almost the complete opposite. She’s a little too attached, a little too caring, she’s an inch away from getting stuck on a desk because she takes chances and pushes too hard to save these kids. And that’s what makes her instantly likeable. It’s also the kind of heart Graeme needs to see, raw, wounded, but still fighting the good fight.

I think the biggest trouble for me with this new twist is that it requires a further stretch for cast. I now need to give this woman a team of agents, each with their individual personalities and technical specialities. They need to be cohesive to show that they work together very well. They need to show obvious rapport that says, “We’ve done this before, let us do our job.” Again, I face the challenge of juggling so many faces; so many personalities. I have to remember where the spotlight shines and avoid getting lost in the stories within the stories.

Speaking of stories within stories, I’m daunted by this current stage. I feel like I need to be filling in plot points and trying to fit my ideas into some sort of formula. Some writers talk about beats. Others talk about their outlines. We have The Hero’s Journey; Three-Act Structure; and probably a thousand other techniques for getting the parts of a story to come together. I still haven’t really worked out what works for me or what works for me when writing a script. When I wrote the first draft of FoT I got a bit lost in too many cards. I tried to gel together all of these ideas and it felt too busy. I don’t want Funny Signs to feel busy, but at the same time I feel like I need more structure. This story needs a sense of shape and timing.

It’s times like this I feel the need to get out scripts of my favourite t.v. shows and favourite movies. I want to sit there and mark up those scripts. I want to write in the timing from the scenes. Pay attention to what constitutes a scene change. Break down the number of locations; the number of characters; the number of beats. See what sorts of changes occur, note the timing of the movie, and what sort of shape these shows become. I want to really rip apart these programs and learn how they were put together. But all that is time consuming and that nagging voice in the back of my head says, “you’re supposed to be writing.”

How do you draw that line between what is writing? When is it too soon to start writing? Would doing these kinds of deconstructions and analysis but constructive use of my time?

What excuses do you make?

It’s 10pm and that nasty inner critic is telling me it’s too late to start writing. I should start winding down for the night. My eyes are already droopy. I need to get a decent sleep because I’ve got to be up early to get kids to school in the morning. These are all legitimate excuses, righteous concerns, and that’s what makes them so insidious.

Today one of my screenwriter tweeters shared an a post from earlier in the year,
Does procrastination = resistance?. In it Mark Sanderson (@scriptcat) shared some insights from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. Now, I’m a huge War of Art fan and I’m sure I’ve written about Pressfield’s insights into Resistance before. I’ve even talked about my own Resistance in recent posts. I’m a familiar friend with that daunting shadow, but, with the usual serendipity, this post came to my attention when I needed to read it.

You might have noticed that I haven’t posted a journal update this weekend. Each day I’ve thought about writing; I’ve thought about needing to get started; I’ve thought of ideas and thought about thinking of more ideas. Instead, I’ve run from resistance. I’ve found a thousand and one other things to do with my time and to be honest, none of them were really worth doing. Well, except maybe reading about screenwriting but even that doesn’t make up for not producing pages. Mark’s post about procrastination and Resistance really gelled with my experience. Yes, procrastination is one of the greatest indicators of resistance. It’s the biggest and most successful tool in Resistance’s arsenal. So I appreciated being reminded today that:

A professional acts in the face of fear. … The amateur, underestimating Resistance’s cunning, permits the flu to keep him from chapters; he believes the serpent’s voice in his head that says mailing off the manuscript is more important than doing the day’s work. The professional has learned better. He respects Resistance. He knows that if he caves in today, no matter how plausible the pretext, he’ll be twice as likely to cave in tomorrow.

– Steven Pressfield, 2003, The War of Art

It is true. Because I caved in and didn’t write, it was that much easy to not write the next day. If I had caved in today the cycle would have continued. In several months I may have looked back and resented myself for once again falling beneath the crushing defeat of Resistance.

I think Resistance wins too often. So many great people could accomplish great things but are defeated by their own Resistance. So, tonight, I turn back to the page. I decide which project to push forward with tonight and I press onward. No more excuses.

Expanding the cast, juggling the spotlight, and pictures not words.

I’m actually here, at 8pm on the dot which is amazing. I told myself earlier today that I’d come back to the screen at 8 and about ten minutes ago I thought, “Oh, I’ll just have a hot shower first, get the ideas running.” For some reason running water really does kick-start creativity. Tonight it didn’t help. Oh, it helped a little, I’m primed, ready to begin but I’m kicking around too many story ideas. It’s difficult to settle on one thing to work toward tonight.

Earlier today I wondered how writers channel their emotions when they are writing. In the past I’ve done things like write particularly angst-riddled poetry or shorts full of angry jerks. Sometimes I’d write a diatribe that denounced the sins of the world. For the most part I’ve kept all that under wraps and it’ll stay there because the things written in that turmoil really were garbage. It’s great to offload the emotions like that but terrible to dump them on to unsuspecting readers.

But tonight, I’m trying to offset the turmoil so that I can focus on creating something brilliant. Except I’m running around in circles, uncertain where to start. Part of me wondered if these emotions could be channelled in to a character. I glanced, with fleeting fancy, at FoT. Swiftly moved on because I love that story and it doesn’t feel right to use this energy there.

Instead, I moved on to thinking of channelling that darkness into Funny Signs. I’m back to calling it Funny Signs because I really loved my idea of the generations of humans wandering the universe in search of Habitable Space and so that name is reserved. The Goldilocks Zone is still a maybe but to be honest, Funny Signs is more about here, Earth, than what is out there. The fact that the aliens come from there really isn’t enough to claim a title. So, for the moment it continues to be Funny Signs and undoubtedly a more suitable title will come as I get to know the full picture better. But, just imagine the tension and anger I’ve been feeling today as the driving force of those aliens. Anger, resentment, malice. What could possibly drive them to feel that way about the Earth? I like letting the feeling settle in to them. It makes them darker, more menacing, more of a threat and a real antagonist.

One of the aspects of this story that has concerned me is the conspiracy angle. Obviously, if anyone half-authoritative makes a claim that aliens are coming then all sorts of nut-jobs are going to come out of the woodworks. So, we’d have conspiracy theorists, and alien worshippers. I keep picturing the kind of chaos that happened on the roof tops in Independence Day. The whole idea of meeting extraterrestrials is intriguing and so there would be some kind of quasi-chaos that evolves from that. But I was picturing big open fields of nothingness so trying to reconcile that image with Washington D.C. is challenging. I admit, I know next to nothing about Washington D.C. I’ve never been there. It’s the place where the politicians of America hang out. But I get the impression that it’s very metropolitan, very city, rather than wide open country. I guess I need to do some research for location to get a better idea in my head about what is available there.

Washington D.C. does however, make for very classy spy-version conspiracy. So, perhaps, rather than announcing to the world that aliens are coming, Percy could leak it to a closed circle. Perhaps the government puts a lid on it quickly enough to prevent mass hysteria. Instead of open fields covered in caravans and tents we’d have shadowy warehouses and average-Joe, suit and tie, CIA-types with all the associated secrecy.

See how dark this is getting? But I’m actually liking it which surprises me given the mood I came into this with. And the great thing about the dark CIA-secrecy angle is it is just screaming for a humorous counter in some loud and wild conspiracy theorist. You know the sort, all hawaiian shirt and down with the government. Think Mozzie from White Collar, or Sam Axe from Burn Notice.

It just occurred to me that this is all very masculine. I can’t picture a woman in that role but it could be cool to have a female CIA-agent. I was also thinking of a female research assistant. I didn’t want to risk falling backwards into a love story between the research assistant and the widowed father. It might devalue the whole family values angle to have a still grieving father falling for his assistant. The bond between father and son needs to be mended before either of them would be ready for that. But she could still work. She could even have her own unrequited crush going on. She’d be brainy which makes for a good modern woman; added to the strong CIA lady we have two very powerful, twenty-first century females that could balance out the brawn.

One of the greatest challenges I’ve always faced with my writing is juggling. It feels great to pull together a couple of lead characters but when you add the supporting cast it gets tricky. It’s not easy to give everyone the light each character deserves. Each character has his or her own backstory and their own significance. Finding the balance between supporting role and leading lady can be difficult. After all, in real life, we are the heroes of our own story. If you think about it, there really are no supporting roles. In movies, however, there has to be a spotlight and everyone else is just the filter. It becomes a game to try to juggle the roles so that they come together to build one solid story instead of wandering off into tangents of the lives of many.

I think that is where t.v. shows have more leeway. You still have a main cast but you have more freedom to wander in and out of the lives of the supporting cast. Over time we get to know a larger assembly. In Castle for example, you have Castle and Beckett, clearly in the spotlight. But over the seasons we’ve gotten to know the beautiful Alexis, Castle’s daughter; his mother, Martha; and agents Esposito and Ryan. Even the lovely Lanie has stood out and grown as a character in her own right. In a movie, it is important to limit the spotlight because there is just not enough time to run all the side stories. And still, it is important to avoid cookie cutters or cardboard. These characters need to feel real, tangible. Like I said, it’s a juggling act and I’m still not very good at juggling.

Getting back to Funny Signs, we have a growing cast. The father, (currently Graeme or George); the son, Percy; the aliens (indistinct for the moment); research assistant; CIA agent; conspiracy theorist. It’s not too many. I’ll probably throw in a research partner too. Someone to create a counterpoint for Graeme because the father needs a ground, someone male because the research assistant doesn’t give me that rock vibe. Yes, she’s solid and dependable, a brilliant scientist and firm friend but she’s not his mate (in the Australian sense of a best friend or buddy). If the partner is more light-hearted he could also show the contrast between who Graeme was before his wife died and the stick-in-the-mud he’s become since.

You know, there is some fantastic development going on here. I’m liking most of it. But I still don’t SEE the story unfolding. There are no scenes jumping out at me, begging to be written. I have characters however, which is a great start. I’m trying to think back at my writing in the past. I’ve taken too long a hiatus that it’s all fuzzy memory at the moment. But, I’ve always had this struggle to pull away the veil and really see into the story. I think that’s why I always tend to start with the characters. Because, by having characters, I have some way to communicate from this side of the wall, over the wall and into the story. Not that it is a piece of cake to get the characters talking to me. Half the time I’m arguing with myself, trying to pull the details out. It’s frustrating. Why can’t I see things clearly? Perhaps it’s because I’m always so wrapped up in the words, in the writing. Even now, every time I pause to let my mind wander I think, “I should be writing”, but thinking, daydreaming is a big part of writing.

So, time to close my eyes and ask for scenes. Specific scenes.

* Percy and Graeme – there needs to be some sort of tense confrontation to show that their relationship is strained and that the father is overworked, the boy is neglected and lonely.
* Percy looking out his window through the telescope – shadow in space
* Graeme at work – meet partner / meet assistant – show him as an astrophysicist who works too hard, is too obsessed with finding life out there, show him as brilliant, committed. Perhaps pat the dog.
* Percy creating the story – how is he planning to do that?
* CIA agent snapping down on the story
* Graeme finding out what Percy did – angry

*grimaces* Notice how these aren’t even scenes? They are events, sure, but they’re all character based. No images; no location; no action. Nothing to SEE!

Ok, pictures:

* Alien spaceship with the backdrop of a planet, on their way to Earth; perhaps passing Venus? I wonder which direction Gliese would be from Earth. I suppose the planet the alien spaceship has as a backdrop really doesn’t matter. It could be Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus; all would be equally compelling images. The ship would be advanced, smooth metals, gleaming glass. Perhaps have the ship pass through the asteroid belt with a shield that causes the asteroids to fizzle into smoke and dust. It should look powerful, menacing.

* CIA, big empty warehouse, lots of space, lots of shadows, bad fluorescent lighting. Graeme with a canvas bag over his head. He’s tied to an old wood-backed metal-framed office chair that has creaky, rusted wheels. CIA-lady is smartly dressed, tall, with black pump heels that give her an extra inch or two she doesn’t need. Pant-suit, black, obviously. Hair is a counter, blonde, a soft honey blonde, almost bimbo-blonde but she’s no light-weight. Sharp eyes, quickly assessing, compassionately cold. She has a job to do.

* The lab is top of the range. It would be interesting to see into the actual labs at Carnegie. Newest technologies, high-class, very expensive; computers, telescopes, huge observatory, whiteboards, computer simulations, pages and pages of mathematics calculations. Sara, redhead, 5’4″ dainty, petite. She’d be mousy if she weren’t so brilliant and vivacious, radiant. Obligatory white lab coat but she wears it open and underneath wears a dark blue pencil skirt, soft blue blouse. She wears kitten heels because she needs the height and those heels make her legs look stunning. Pete notices, Graeme doesn’t; Pete knows she only has eyes for Graeme. Bit of a love triangle there, two hearts beating in the wrong direction. It leaves Pete and Sara space for an attraction but I don’t know if I’ll go there, if they will.

* Dinner, something simple, reheated, doesn’t take any effort at all and tastes rather bland. A counter to the fantastic home cooking his wife used to provide and the cooking together father and son could do at the end. Percy is pushing his food around on his plate with his fork, it’s not exactly appetising. His father is buried, nose in notes, ignoring him. The notes are covering the table, only just missing the dinner plates. Complete silence between the two, Percy glances up at his father, sad eyes; father oblivious. “May I, please, have more gravy?” Graeme grunts, an acknowledgement/yes of sorts, but doesn’t take his eyes from the page. Percy kneels on his chair to reach over his plate for the gravy bowl, his elbow hits his glass of juice. Orange juice spills all over the table, glass rolls off the edge and smashes on the floor. Graeme stands up, steps backward. “Dammit, Percy! Go to your room.” Rushing to salvage papers. Percy, wide-eyed, scared. Pause. Then the boy jumps off his chair and takes off to his room. Later, he’s crying on his bed, quiet sobs, he doesn’t want his dad to hear him. Graeme in the kitchen, mopping up the mess with paper towels, he bends to pick up pieces of glass, cuts himself, swears again. There is an anguish and exhaustion in him, a sense of defeat.

Ok, three locations and a scene. That could work. I went back and added the “please” to Percy’s line. This kid is really trying to be good for his dad. I think having him be so careful around his father makes it more meaningful when he does this thing to betray his father’s trust and get his father’s attention. Especially since, he’s torn between getting his father’s attention and not being sure he really wants it. When he gets attention it’s to get yelled at so he’s both timid and yearning. Graeme overreacts, he’s strung too tightly so everything causes drama in his world, he can’t handle even little things, like a broken glass. Add that to the fact that it’s all over those papers. Important papers. Ruined papers. Somehow I need to make those papers significant to the plot. Perhaps, because they were damaged Graeme leaves them somewhere and Percy uses them to make his “aliens are coming” declaration. Somehow. What would a seven year old know of what’s on those pages. I still don’t know how he could possibly make that kind of announcement and be believed. If we made him a child genius we’d loose a vital sense of relate-ability with him. He needs to be this normal scared little boy. So how does a normal, scared little boy, tell people that aliens are coming and be believed?

He’s net gen. Perhaps he knows his way around Photoshop? If he has prints of Gliese from his father’s research he could alter those on his computer. In fact, those papers could be photographs. And initially, Percy could be cleaning them up so he can give his Dad new prints. Not that the originals wouldn’t still be on a computer, easy enough to print again. But you know, he’s seven, maybe he doesn’t realise that. Except if he’s good enough to know how to clean up a photograph with Photoshop then he’d know about digital images. It doesn’t negate the whole, doctoring an image with Photoshop thing but it definitely tempers his whole reason for grabbing those photos to begin with. I’ll think about it some more. Perhaps Graeme dumps the whole lot in the bin and Percy salvages them. I’ll let it percolate.

I’ve had a pretty productive two hours. I’m going to wrap up and make an early night of it. The sleep will do me and my mood wonders. Happy Writing!

Aliens, FTL Travel, Flying Civilisations, and the Universe.

I’m feeling so wiped out and tired tonight. Part of me thinks it might be the heat but then I have this nagging voice in the back of my mind that wonders if this physical sense of exhaustion is just Resistance. Sometimes I get like that, where my whole body rebels against doing something. Primarily I think it is out of fear. I get that a lot. It is a recurring thing I’ve found stagnating a great deal of my writing because so many times I’ve allowed myself to back down when writing becomes so physically taxing. And then of course I beat myself up about it because I know how pathetic and weak it is for my to have given in to the fear and Resistance. I let it win. It beat me.

How do professional screenwriters combat that feeling? Or am I the only one who feels like this?

I’ve had an interesting day in the Maybe. I shared earlier my musings on the alien race I’m tentatively building in to Funny Signs. You know, that name really is terrible. The trouble is, I like the other two alternatives I threw out there. The Goldilocks Zone and Habitable Space. Both could work for this movie. The interesting thing about names is that they really tell you a lot about a movie. So writing a name, even just a tentative working title, requires more than a slapdash of thought. The three names this movie currently has in the Maybe each imply a whole spin to the story. The screenplay I’d write for The Goldilocks Zone would differ significantly for the one I would write for Habitable Space. So, as I toy with names I’m torn because I try to reconcile myself to which of those two versions I like best. Which of those two versions do I think works best? I really don’t know. Must ponder further.

Speaking of names, I swirled through the stars on Star Walk as I was searching for a sense of the stars that would be visible from a young boys window if he were looking toward these habitable space planets. 47 Ursae Majoris B orbits Ursae Majoris, a star in the Ursa Major constellation. Ursa Major is a giant bear in the night sky. Gliese 667Cc orbits Gliese 667 in the constellation Scorpious. These are just moot points and completely off topic. What I meant to say was that gazing at these constellations I started noticing the mythologies that accompany them. In Star Walk, when you focus on a constellation a ghosted image becomes imposed over the stars that really help stargazers see the bear or the scorpion or the hunter. It occurred to me, with all these fantastic mythologies and with a father who is fascinated by the stars, the young boy in this movie likely has a constellation driven name.

With this in mind I ran through my mind the names of major constellations and the associated mythologies. There are constellations like Antlia, Caelum, and Pictor but these are objects rather than people. There is obviously Ursa Major, Scorpious, Lynx, Lupus, etc. but these are animals rather than people. When you eliminate the constellations that are not humanoid you’re left with a slim range of possibilities. I discarded Hercules because, really, can you imagine the ridicule that poor kid would get in school? Same goes for Sagittarius and Ophiuchus.

In the end, I have three possibilities: Cepheus – aka Ceph, Orion – aka Ryan, and Perseus – aka Percy. Huh, how about that, again, three possible names and again three very different outcomes. Each name represents a unique character. The boy who is Ceph is vastly different from Percy. And yet, who would have thought there is so much inherent in a name? “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet;” (Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1597) And yet, in writing, sometimes a name can be everything. A single word holds significance and a name holds more than any other word.

So, if I think about what I’ve gained from the day I have to wonder if it is much of anything. I’ve got tentative names; I’ve got a new home world; I’ve got aliens, precious aliens with FTL travel, potentially in giant flying civilisations, exploring the universe; I’ve got a boy and his dad; I’ve got a shadow in space; I’ve got three locations; What I don’t have is a real sense of how the story unfolds. What I don’t have is alien motivation or imagery. What I don’t have is a true nemesis or bad guy. What I don’t have is conspiracy theorists and alien groupies and how that angle drives the story. What I don’t have is a way to reconcile the emotional journey of the father with the sci-fi element. What I don’t have is a hell of a lot more than what I do have.

That is depressing. So, I’m going to go have a hot shower (because that’s when my creative mind seems to work the best) and I’m going to get some sleep (because its possible the physical exhaustion is just a sign that I haven’t been getting enough) and I’m going to let the Maybe spin a few more ideas together which I can take out and examine in the morning.

22 Light Years and Cities in Space.

Remember yesterday, I wondered if there were any planets that were actually within The Goldilocks Zone rather than skirting it? Apparently there is! In some fairly recent habitable zone news from Carnegie I could have a new candidate for Funny Signs alien home world. Which is good because I was having issues trying to reconcile the idea of giant fluffy extraterrestrials. Gliese 667Cc potentially has conditions that would make the surface of the planet rather homely. And what is cool is that there are three stars in this system and the one this planet orbits is a red dwarf so the light spectrum on the planet would be different. Imagine how this might have altered the way their extraterrestrial eyesight developed. I think it calls for more research. It’s an interesting new possibility in the Maybe and gives me much broader parameters when trying to decide what these aliens might be like.

Remember yesterday also, that I talked about building a massive space shuttle in a shipyard outside Earth’s atmosphere? The Maybe threw back one better. What if we built a floating metropolis? You see, one of the most challenging aspects of the whole voyage into deep space concept is that space is really, really big. It takes a long time to get from one point in space to another. So, science fiction movies bring out concepts like faster than light travel, hyperspace windows, folding space, and stasis chambers. But, what if, instead of trying to speed up travel or slow down human ageing, we just commit to living our lives in space? So, instead of building a shuttle, we build a city. One where generations of families are born, live normal lives as plumbers, and writers, and musicians, and exist just as we do here on Earth. But out there! With the knowledge that as a species we are on the greatest adventure of all time. It won’t be my generation that reaches the farthest reaches but we’ll have started the journey. I know, it’s a little utopian. It depends on people being able to work together and I’m not sure humankind is quite that socially evolved yet, but just imagine.

When I imagine, it brings me back to these aliens in my story. Well, I was thinking about having them on these flying cities but then my Maybe shot the idea down. Because realistically, if they are travelling slowly then someone on Earth should have spotted them long before the boy glimpses that shadow in space. Still, the ideas are building. They are playing with each other and delving into the Maybe so I’m not discouraged. I’ll keep drawing out the iron rods until I figure out these aliens and find out how they work in this story.

In good news, Gliese 667 is also only 22 light years away where as 47 Ursae Majoris B is 45.9 light years away. Ok, so in light years 22 is still a long way to travel if your top speed is 30,000 MPH but since we’re no longer considering taking the slow lane we could assume these aliens have mastered faster-than-light travel and as such halving the length of a road trip could be highly beneficial.

Another advantage of this planet is that Gliese is easier to say than 47 Ursae Majoris. The humans, in typical short-sighted terrible-naming normality, could call the aliens, The Gliese. Ahhhh! The Gliese are coming! Yeah, I don’t know. I think I need to work on that. Still, like I said, it offers up some interesting new ideas.

As I get more and more of a picture of these beings I start to wonder about their motive and their mission. In this story they are coming to Earth. Why? I’ll have to let my mind think on that.

Life on the moons in Ursa Major and Resistance.

I spent a few hours today working on Funny Signs which I might start calling The Goldilocks Zone or Habitable Space. Over the past few days, ideas have been percolating and I’ve let my mind wander through character and motive. I mentioned before that the story revolves around the relationship between father and son. But the drawcard is this alien encounter so I leaned on that angle to see if I could get a better handle on the extraterrestrial incursion.

What I would love to write are non-carbon-based life-forms that exist outside of The Goldilocks Zone. But, straying a bit too far outside of what people can relate to got a bit scary. As I was researching The Goldilocks Zone I realised that while none of the planets identified to date actually exist within that zone, (so far as I know, let me know if you know otherwise), some come pretty close. It’s not too big a stretch of the imagination then to believe that these planets could sustain carbon-based life. Especially, if you consider that the development of technologies could improve living conditions.

47 Ursae Majoris B and Moon, Copyright Lynette Cook -
© Copyright Lynette Cook –
47 Ursae Majoris B is, according to scientists, probably pretty cold. Ok, well lets amend that to really, really cold. So cold that while their could be water it its gaseous mass that water would be completely frozen. It is also pretty big at approximately 2.5 times the size of Jupiter. Speculation has been made that the gravitational forces of the planet could heat the core of nearby moons resulting in their having slightly more temperate conditions. So, if we posit that life could exist on a moon orbiting 47 Ursae Majoris b we then start to consider what kind of life. Obviously, they would need to be fairly hardy against the cold because even with a raging volcanic core the moon would be primarily covered in ice. I get glimpses of Yeti, albino Sasquatch, or Wookies, none of which I like, so lets leave that alone for the moment and stretch out some of the other ideas that wandered through the Maybe today.

Did you know, it occurred to me that human life has the technology to send a manned mission to deep space. We have U.V. lighting so we can create artificial environments where plants would thrive. This would give us the means to create food. Feed the plants to animals and we increase available food sources. We also have carbon dioxide filters and the technology to convert water into oxygen. I think one of the greatest challenges scientists have faced about the idea is that building a shuttle large enough to hold enough supplies, for several generations of people and many of thousands of years, would create a chunk of metal that we couldn’t launch out of the atmosphere. But, why can’t we simply build the shuttle outside of the atmosphere? We can use smaller rockets to courier materials to what would effectively be a space-station shipyard. Ok, so I’m no rocket scientist, I’m a writer, but it seems plausible enough to me. I see the idea as having potential for a future script. Who knows, maybe I’ll call that one Habitable Space: over the course of many generations the first manned mission into deep space travels in search of planets in the habitable reaches of the universe. Or maybe, this is how Ursa Majors aliens do it but with speed.

One of the scenes for Funny Signs came to mind as I tinkered with other ideas. One of the most significant turning points of the story is that this boy fools people into believing that aliens are coming. Now, with his pedigree people are more likely to believe him, despite his age. Especially, if he makes the claim in his father’s name. Especially if he tinkers with some of his father’s research when he does it. The scene that came to mind had the boy stargazing when, deep in the Ursa Major constellation he sees a shadow. Shadows could be all sorts of things, perhaps most probable would be planets moving in front of a star. To this young boy it’s the start of a way to get his father’s love and attention.

I’ve been surprised at how exhausting I’ve found this process. Tonight, I’m writing this journal entry and hating every word. The ideas seem interesting but the execution is clunky and long winded. My eyelids are drooping and I’m feeling lethargic. It is frustrating. I see how resistance works against me. Part of me wonders if it is resistance that makes connecting the dots of this story so difficult. I have to pull pieces of the story out, like drawing iron nails over a blacksmith’s forge. But, the more time I spend working away at it the more it comes together and the more interested and excited I become about what this story could be. So I just need to keep slowly drawing through those glowing irons.

Right now, however, I’m calling it a night. I’ll head to bed and let my mind work through the Maybe in my dreams.

My 10,000 Hours Screenwriting Apprenticeship

10,000 hours
1 hour every day for more than 27 years;
2 hours every day for almost 14 years;
3 hours every day for over 9 years;
4 hours every day for almost 7 years;
5 hours every day for 5 and a half years.

I’m terrible at math, but today I listened to a ScriptNotes Podcast that had me pull out my calculator. Malcolm Gladwell has a theory that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve a degree of mastery in any practice. So, even if you quit your job and wrote full-time (8 hours every single day including weekends) it would still take three and a half years to complete a writing apprenticeship.

I’ve been writing in one form or another for a great many years already. I’m 29 now; I wanted to be a writer and started writing stories when I was 6. I might not have written story every single day of the past 23 years but I’ve had some form of connection to the narrative. I’ve read fiction and non-fiction books, I’ve watched t.v. and movies, I’ve played video games, I’ve played Dungeons and Dragons, I’ve worked as an editor, I’ve done collaborative story telling, I’ve written short stories, novels, poetry, non-fiction, etc. I’ve been immersed in a world of words all my life and in that world I’ve actively sort to learn and improve craft.

Any screenwriter who sold a screenplay in less than four years has defied the odds. I can’t begin to do the maths on how many odd-defying screenwriters there have been over the decades but like John and Craig said, if you have the potential to be any good at it, then it rarely takes 10,000 hours of writing screenplays before you sell something. I hope I have that potential. I know I have doubts like most writers do, but most of the time I am fairly confident that I write very well and that people enjoy my stories. The greatest problem I have is that I get so obsessed with getting it right that I struggle to even start let alone get to “the end”. Obviously, for any chance of success I’ll have to get over that obsession. Screenwriting is a good tool for that because no matter how good a screenplay is, the final version that goes to air will be different. So, why obsess about being perfect when the whole thing is subject to change through the whole process and so many creative bodies are going to influence the final product. So yes, get it close to right, but it doesn’t need to be perfect, and it certainly isn’t going to be perfect when I start writing.

I think these two points are a fantastic counter to anyone who has been working at this for any length of time. When I track back to when I started “screenwriting”, I might date it to the beginning of this month although technically I don’t feel like I have started the writing. I’m still in the thinking and learning but I feel like I began a more specific screenwriting apprenticeship at the beginning of this month. So, I could, based on this 10,000 hours theory, expect to suck for a great many years to come. But, I’ve been with story so long that, again, on this theory, I could potentially sell my first screenplay. The odds aren’t stacked either way.

Perhaps one of the keys to this, however, is that the best way to become a screenwriter isn’t necessarily to study t.v. and movies, it isn’t to study scripts or format or character or plot, but to just start writing. The more hours you put into the act of creating story the better a screenwriter you are becoming. The rest is a natural amalgamation of that act. This fear I have that I really don’t know where to start is keeping me from putting together my first screenplay. The fear is moot because I really won’t know how to do it until I start trying to do it. The key is to start writing, and then learn the rest as the process evolves.

But, what I think I got out of this the most is that I spend a lot of time tinkering with the idea of writing. I do a lot of learning about writing, listening to podcasts, reading books, browsing blogs, scanning Twitter, but I don’t spend a lot of time actively engaged with my stories and my ideas. Last night for example, I had already written a journal entry for the day so I didn’t feel any real push to do more that night. I spent three to four hours tinkering. That time could have been more effectively spent at least brainstorming and fleshing out ideas and story for either FoT or Funny Signs.

My insecurity about not knowing the next step and feeling like I need to have some sort of mentor or guide to show me what to do and how the process should evolve tears down my confidence. I have to remind myself that I’m a pro. Ok, so I’m not a professional screenwriter yet, but I am a professionally-qualified writer. I don’t consider myself a professional-acting writer because I’m not currently freelancing as a business but I’ve done my dues. I’ve earned my 10,000 hours. I’m not a beginner at being creative or using words for trade. I need to accept my confidence as a writer; a good writer, who just happens to be trying on new clothes, new format, new medium. Telling the story is the same, it’s the shirt and tie the story wears that differs. And, it doesn’t matter if that tie isn’t straight because I can straighten it up before the story heads out the door. Yeah, terrible metaphor, bare with me.

I’m in two places. I am the accomplished writer who has done her due to the blank page, but at the same time I am the eager but intimidated beginner starting a new 10,000 hours screenwriting apprenticeship. It is difficult reconciling those two people within myself. I am beginning to see that the only way to really do that is to start writing, start creating, start building. And so, I start, again.

Funny Signs: The beginning of the Maybe.

Last night I wandered back over to the poll on Facebook where I asked readers to choose from a selection of log lines I had written. One of those log lines was a clear front runner and it occurred to me that it would make a great tinker toy while I let the Maybe of FoT percolate a little longer. So, as the clock turned over midnight I pulled out Scrivener for Mac (Scrivener for Windows) and started a new file. I put in the title: “Funny Signs”; it’s only a working title because it’s terrible. I added my byline. It felt good.

But what occurred to me then was that I knew nothing about this story other than the log line. For those of you who didn’t see that, the log line exactly as posted in the poll reads:

“A small town becomes a tourist trap for conspiracy theorists when a young boy ‘cries wolf’ claiming to have seen signs of an imminent alien incursion – what they don’t know is that aliens really are coming.” – Funny Signs Logline, Rebecca Laffar-Smith, January 23, 2012.

I have a log line and that line gives me a couple of things. It gives me a character, a setting, a conflict. As log lines go it is off to a great start. It did not however give me a story. So, as I lay in the darkness searching for sleep I pulled my iPhone close and as ideas occurred to me I dictated them to my voice recorder. As I let my mind wander concepts appeared and what was a single line concept began to become a story. It is still a long way from being a screenplay but it is definitely more of a story now.

Now what have I got? I’ve got a lonely young (7yo) boy and his work-obsessed father. His father is a NASA scientist immersed in research that probes The Goldilocks Zone through space. This boy has been raised with the idea of extraterrestrial life so he is very stars and space oriented. The father is the true “hero” of the story and his son is the catalyst of the father’s character development. The journey is of a father who is overworked/busy and who doesn’t give enough time to his family coming through at the end and really being a Dad to this little boy who needs him at home. He learns of prioritise the importance of family values over the greater science and the greater mystery of the universe. There is the smaller story of a boy who lies, who ‘cries wolf’, and must learn the importance of truth but that plays a smaller part to the father’s story which is what will really pull this story through.

I also have three locations:

  1. The boys bedroom, fancy telescope facing out the window, star charts on the walls, roof painted in immaculate detail of the night sky the day the boy was born. In a way, this room reflects the love of his father who painstakingly painted that roof and provides the best for his son. And, as I write out my notes here now it occurs to me that perhaps the death of the boy’s mother is what pushed the father into his obsession with work. It feels like it’s been done before but hopefully I can put a new spin on a primal story.
  2. A large expanse of barren land dotted with caravans and tents; a transient city formed of conspiracy theorists, alien hunters, x-philes, and the like. I don’t even know if I can call this a scene because all I really see of it is a passing panorama shot to show the chaos of how big the boys little white lie got. I don’t picture anything actually happening in this setting. But, it’s there, in the Maybe.
  3. And Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington. Because that is where research is currently being conducted about habitable space and The Goldilocks Zone, so it’s a good place to posit that the father works.

There you go. It’s not really a story yet. I haven’t nailed down any Maybe scenes. But, the idea has come a fair way from the flash of inspiration that lead to the log line. I am looking forward to letting my mind work with what I have so far to see where it goes from here.

Russell’s Maybe; Craig’s Outlines; John’s Notes.

Today, I put aside Russell, just for the day, because I needed to prioritise my university studies. Instead of reading Russell I listened to ScriptNotes Podcasts in my down time. As I drove to pick kids up from school and drove home and in my quiet non-studying moments at home like while I do laundry and dishes, I listened to John August and Craig Mazin. It was interesting because I really am at the very beginning of this screenwriting journey. Yes, I’ve been writing for over a decade but scripts and screenplays are completely new to me. I love t.v. and movies so they aren’t unfamiliar in so much as I can sort of “see” the script as I watch a movie or t.v. show. I sense the writer/s behind the program, but until the beginning of this month I had never picked up a script to read.

As I begin this journey, I am very aware of how much I do not know (and how much I don’t know I do not know). I am very insecure about how fast to move and uncertain of how to begin or which road to take. I have FoT, and it’s a great concept that would make for a fantastic t.v. series but what do I do with what I have? Do I just start writing and seat-of-the-pants together a mishmash of script-like substance and then work out the kinks as I go along? Do I write elevator pitch outlines for each of the scenes on digital index cards like I would if I were writing a novel? Do I throw together these conversational brainstorms and see where my mind wanders (which is how I normally work through problems I am having with writing)? What are the first steps from idea to writing?

I think this is where Russell’s guidance really doesn’t help a beginner. He talks about the Maybe and the Definitely Maybe. It’s the first chapter of The Writer’s Tale actually. In the Maybe he lets the ideas percolate in his mind. He toys with all the could be and the might work. But he really does not say what he does with those concepts. Does he keep a notepad? Does he write them down? Does he scribble little pictures? Does he map out his ideas? Or is it all just a splash of thoughts inside his head that he gets out and twirls around with from time to time to see where it might go? And what comes after that idea-twirling stage?

The interesting thing about the ScriptNotes Podcast I listened to today was that it was all about outlining. John and Craig shared how they outlined. Craig creates rather detailed and structured outlines while John tends to have less structure and more notes. They also talked about how other screenwriters outline. There really does not seem to be any particular way to do it. Some people do just jump right in and start writing. Others write quite detailed outlines which are more reflective of how I’d outline a novel. Others do just write themselves notes and brainstorm in narrative. No single way works for everyone and no one has a right way that always works. So, I guess I have to decide how I want to approach it for myself.

I think I would lean toward what is familiar to me which is those elevator pitch scene cards. They let me flesh out my ideas, develop a visual sense of balance, and fill in any potential plot holes. I’ve found over the years that I cannot seat-of-the-pants. Fear paralyses me if I sit down without having a strong sense of where I am going. Even when I am driving I need to know where I am going and I freak out a bit if I end up on a road I don’t expect. It’s my inner control freak. I have to have some direction. I am flexible with the direction, I might have mapped one road but I know another one gets me where I’m going so I can take off down that one for a bit so long as I know I will end up where I expect. But I need to have that initial plan and sense of direction. It is the same when I am writing.

I wonder how other writers move through the process from initial idea to ready to start writing? How do they know when they are ready to write that first scene? What else do I need to know before I begin?