Holding Pattern

As I write this, here in Hawaii we’re hunkered down and waiting for a hurricane to hit — followed possibly by a second hurricane right behind it. We’ve been lucky the past twenty years, with most of the hurricanes weakening to tropical storms or fizzling out before they reached landfall. But when you see the TV news reports showing the projected path of these monsters heading straight for those little specks in the ocean — the islands we call home — it does remind you how much of our daily existence is left to chance. People were rushing out to stores and stocking up on water, toilet paper, food, filling their gas tanks, apparently worried that catastrophic destruction is eminent, thanks largely to over-hyped “breaking news” alerts that began a week ago.

Anyhow, a lot’s gone down since my last blog post over a month ago when I wrote about being a finalist in the Industry Insider contest. That’s the one where entrants take a premise supplied by an established screenwriter (Sheldon Turner in this round), submit the first 15 pages only, and then the finalists work with Writers Store story specialists to produce a completed draft in about two month’s time. The goal was to turn in 10 new pages each week, which we’d then go over with the “story coaches” during our hour-long phone sessions. And I have to say the writer-coach they assigned to me did a great job of kicking my ass into a higher gear.

If you put any credence in screenwriting contests, I could say with some confidence that I’m a pretty good writer based on past results. But I also know something must be lacking in my scripts since the closest I’ve come to getting a deal is a couple of options and a few calls or emails from producers. What I found during my phone sessions was the story coach didn’t fall for my writing… I couldn’t baffle him with bullshit or dazzle him with clever dialogue if it did not directly serve the theme or what the script was really about. Some of that was due to the fact that I wasn’t sure myself what that was, since I was working from a loose outline under weekly deadlines to crank out pages.

On top of that, I was dealing with my day job of producing a local TV show that has its own deadlines. Plus, I had scheduled a week of vacation time in Kona last month, figuring I was going to need a break to recharge my batteries during this period (the time off did help). What happened though was I kept having to backtrack and make revisions to address script problems that my coach pinpointed. The first act was getting stronger, but I started falling behind on my weekly page quota.

With one week left before our deadline to turn in a rough draft, I was at page 55 — about mid-point — and knew I’d have to crank out 50-60 pages or more, figuring I’d cut or delete a number of scenes that didn’t work. By nature, I am NOT a fast writer. I like to think things out, ponder, jot notes, then rough out scenes before actually writing in script format. In this case, normal routines were jettisoned, and I just had to keep pushing out pages even when I wasn’t sure where the story was going. One of the magical things that happens when you work on something daily for extended periods of time is the subconscious starts to kick in and the characters really do seem to be telling you what they want or need.

The only problem with that is it could turn out to be much different than what you thought your story was about when you first typed FADE IN. Which is why my first draft was something of a mess, structurally speaking. I did succeed in finishing the rough draft on schedule (104 pages) and a week later, the Industry Insider folks sent back coverage style notes from another reader/script analyst. That reader felt it had a lot of potential, but like my coach, noted there were a number of problems I needed to go back and fix before it could reach the next level.

So now I have another week to make revisions before the final draft is due on Aug.23. Today I reviewed the reader’s notes with my coach. I had been in a holding pattern since getting back the coverage on Monday — not because I disagreed with the reader’s suggestions, but because I thought they made sense… yet I wasn’t sure how to implement those changes on the page.

What my coach did was make me focus on my ending (which the reader felt was unsatisfying) as my thesis or theme: What is it I really want to say through this script? When I told him, I saw where my current ending made sense to me, yet in the bigger picture, probably wouldn’t connect with others because the story that preceded it was all over the place. He told me to go back to the start and use the theme of my ending to filter out all the other digressions and subplots or sub-themes, so that when the reader got to the end, the storyline would be clear and focused.

Moreover, the protagonist has to be in opposition to that theme at the start, because it’s all about the transformational arc that takes place in the Hero’s Journey… the hero must do something at the end that he or she wasn’t capable of doing at the beginning.

However, had I not written a bunch of crappy or so-so pages in that mad dash to the finish line, I wouldn’t have found the real meat of the story. Now, when I look at the notes and think about the theme that evolved during the sessions with my story coach, it’s like seeing those TV news weather maps: I can see the path of the hurricane, like God looking down on His creation, knowing who will be destroyed or spared, not by a writer’s whim, but because it is fate. The story had to turn out that way.

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Speaking of contests, I whiffed on the Nicholl Fellowships this year. Last year’s QF script only got a “top 20 percent” dink note. The other two, which had scored well in past contests didn’t do anything — in that contest, anyway. One of those made the quarterfinals cut in both the Page Awards and Scriptapalooza, and is still in contention for those two competitions.  Like I have always said, do not be too distressed by contest results or get too excited about placing. My story coach keeps reminding me that what I should be most concerned about is digging deeper as a writer to create characters and stories that will move people.

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