Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Tools of the Trade

So what exactly do you need to become a successful, working screenwriter? The minute someone finds a real, solid, concrete answer for that, let me know. Of course, many will say all it takes is a great screenplay. Al-righty, then! It would take way too many pages and way too much energy to discuss, define, and apply the meaning of greatness.

So, minus the great screenplay? Why the hell are you waiting for me to answer this? But, nonetheless, let’s start with the tools that might come in handy.

A brain - preferably functioning, and I do define functioning very loosely. Many a great writer has been stoned, drunk, mental, depressed, and on a few occasions, completely sane.

An understanding of words - again, a little tricky with understanding. Some people just have “a way with words”. Sorry, couldn’t help myself. After teaching high school for eight years, I discovered that words don’t always mean what the dictionary says. I mean, after all, if a room full of people have a universal understanding of a particular word, and they can produce a ton of others who have that same understanding -then hell, that damn word exists.

Skin - preferably thick - hardened to a shiny, steel shell would be best. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Though I must admit, my shell is a little soft in spots. For those of you just sitting down to write your first script, the word “newbie” will be whacked across ever part of your body, mainly by those who feel it’s their duty to remind you that you don’t know Jack. Can’t say I’ve been acquainted with the fella myself.

Controlled deafness - the less you are able to hear for long periods of time, the better survival rate you will have the first year or two, or three, or four... well, you get the point. You will hear you suck more times than you care to count (sometimes in many masked and eloquent variations). You’ll also have your work critiqued to the point that the ability at controlled blindness might be a marketable skill, as well.

Mental illness - why else would you spend hours alone inside of your head with characters and places that don’t exist? You gotta be crazy, just accept it and move on. Stay away from the little blue pills, they tend to make those people inside your head disappear. Not that I would know from first-hand experience - I like the orange ones.

A face made of stone - preferably, it gets that way with the thickening of skin. If the stone face incorporates a chiseled smile, that will come in handy on the days when you hear “screenwriting, is that really a job?”.

The ability to say Fuck You, really loud, telepathically, with no one actually being able to know you said it. Trust me, you don’t ever want these words to come out of your mouth - at least, not without that chiseled smile and steel skin.

The ability to read - and decipher the right way to write a screenplay based on the countless books written by gurus who rarely seem to agree on any one method - but they’re all right and you better listen and follow their advice or run the risk of never becoming a successful screenwriter.

Oh, and a few other things like; a computer, really good, dependable software; a nice, reliable printer; tons of paper of various sorts and sizes; and a sense of humor that only a mother could appreciate.

A Full-Time, Unemployed Screenwriter

So, I’m a full-time screenwriter. I’ve been trying to convince myself of this every time I’m asked to explain what it is I do for a living. You see, the thing is, I don’t get paid. I sit home every day and write. Okay, most days. I do a lot of reading, too.

I grew up in Brooklyn, New York. I attended a high school that boasts a number of notorious rappers. I once had a dream of becoming a lawyer, then making my way up to the Supreme Court. Before that, I wanted to be an actress, actually auditioning at both Erasmus High School (Barbra Streisand’s alma mater) - which I got in, though I didn't attend; and the famed Performing School of Arts - which I bombed so horribly, therefore, I didn't attend. And before that, becoming a firefighter or policewoman - even at a young age, I liked defying the odds. The biggest odds against me has been being a foster child who would make it out of the system with an education and some degree of success. You see, I’m already a winner whether this screenwriting thing ever lands me a gig.

I remember visiting a college during my junior year in high school. The moment I left the university, I knew that was the school I wanted to attend. When I presented this to my college advisor, he plainly told me that I couldn’t possibly get accepted to that college, and if I did, I would only make it two years - if that. Well, I got accepted, and I graduated with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. I don’t like somebody telling me what I can’t do - I don’t like it at all.

During my senior year at college, I became pregnant - a sort of a parting gift from my boyfriend (now my husband). I started graduate school - full, round belly. I gave birth to our daughter at the start of my second semester. Alone on campus (family housing), I nursed my daughter while completing papers and student teaching. I remember going to seek health benefits and being told that I did not qualify because I wasn’t in an approved program. In other words, I would have to quit getting my master’s degree and take a job in the park or start an educational course that taught a skill or trade. I found it just as hilarious then as I do now. It was not an option, I would find a way, and I did.

After graduating with my degree in teaching, I went back to my old high school and begged for a job. It was a mostly boys school, mostly black and mostly neglected by the system. I wanted in where most wanted out. I didn’t get hired my first try; they had an excess of teachers that year (how quickly the tide changes), so I taught somewhere else, and there I was let go because of excess (budget cuts). Having taken a year off to have my son, I went back to my old school and asked again. This time, I was hired. With a three year old daughter, an eight month old son, and a husband who was a full-time medical student, I went to work as a High School English Teacher, and that first year was hard - but worth it.

I taught for six years at my old school, even becoming the college advisor for four of them. When my husband and I decided to move further east because Uncle Sam was reaming us without the decency of vaseline, I took a job teaching in the “burbs” - a complete opposite of my first 6 years of teaching. As with everything I do, I poured my heart and soul into teaching, but I had always promised myself that the moment I became bitter, I would walk away. It was one of the hardest choices I had to make, but in the fall of 2002, I found myself leaving a career that I had worked hard to obtain. I was scared as hell.

The first thing I knew was that I never wanted to stop working with teens, and especially those that the system had left behind. I immediately went to work in setting up a nonprofit organization that would help at-risk teens. It was approved by the New York State Department of Education in 2003. It was shortly after that that I discovered this need to write, and once I was onboard, there was no getting off. I wrote and submitted, and wrote and submitted, and wrote and submitted. I still have the drawer full of rejections. When I became a finalist in a contest during the fall of 2003, I knew that this might be more than just a little hobby. So I sat the husband down and said, “I want to do this full-time”, with the understanding that I would have no income coming in. This was tough. Having been the breadwinner for the first few years of our marriage, while he attended medical school, and now having to totally depend on him financially was a huge blow to my ego. I prided myself on being independent, not needing a man to take care of me, and here I was having to swallow a huge chunk of my pride.

It’s been four years. I’ve made a few contacts, garnished a few successes in contests, and shed more than enough tears of frustration. And you know what? I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.

Why did I share all this information with a bunch of strangers (or the one person who is reading this)? I hope as an example that determination counts for more than monetary success. If I never sell a script or get an assignment, I still have something that can’t be measured, and for that matter, can’t really be put into simple words.

Write because you love it. Write because it’s the only thing that makes sense in this crazy world. Write because without it, you can’t breathe. BUT WRITE. Oh, and keep reading my blog.

Fade In:

The first time I wrote those words, I had absolutely no grasp on reality, and thank goodness I didn’t. I was determined to write this great screenplay that would be the best movie ever seen. After all, I had seen a ton of movies that I thought were pure crap, and I could write way better crap than that. Arrogance is totally wasted on the naive.

I purchased every book I could find on screenwriting - starting with The Screenwriter’s Bible. Having taught a film class to high school students for two years, hey, I felt like I knew a little something. Yeah, very little. But I was determined. For years, I had talked about writing a novel, I had even gone as far as outlining it, and using a trial version of Dramatica to work out the story. I had also started a few short stories and nonfiction essays. However, the one thing these projects had in common was I had never followed them through to completion. So, when I informed the hubby that I was going to write a screenplay, he nodded and smiled, which translated oh, so clearly into a “yeah, right”.

I purchased index cards, typing paper and a copy of Screenwriter’s Movie Magic software. This was becoming pricey before leaving the starting gate. I kept Trottier’s Bible next to me with every index card I completed and every page I wrote. Because I suffer from a major case of undiagnosed ADD, I found that I could never really sit in front of the computer for too long, so I chose to write my script using pen and paper. This allowed for me to be more active physically, but it ended up serving another purpose - it served as an instant first draft, forcing me to rewrite the script as I then transferred it to the computer. I still am a pen and paper type of girl, but have since learned to sit for longer periods in front of the computer and work on a first draft there.

The day I finished the first script - February of 2003 - my husband was beyond shocked. I had actually finished something. Granted, I had finished college and obtained a master’s degree, so I knew I was capable of completing something that was extremely important to me. He read it, and as only a loving husband could feel, he loved it. Both of us now look back at that first script and realize that we fell in love with the act of accomplishing a goal. I had to write that script. It wasn’t just words on a page, but it was words that I found deep inside of me, that I felt the need to share with others.

I know that I was born again the day I completed my first script, and with the completion of every subsequent script, I rediscover a new me. I write because I have to. Fade In represents the fading in of me, my life, and who and what I am. Every word is an extension of a feeling, a fear, a desire, a need. I write because I live.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

And Exactly What Do You Do For A Living?

God, I’ve grown to hate this question, especially when it’s put forth to me right after having asked and discovered that my husband is a doctor with his own private practice. Ha! He practices medicine, while I actually write. Okay, I practice writing. Does that sound better?

I kind of like the question: what do you do for a LIVING? I mean, what do you do that makes you live, or in my case, come alive? I write. Now, granted, I didn’t say publish or sell - at least, not yet (unless you call this blog an actual publishing of my writing - then, well, I suck).

Anyway, I write. To be more exact, I write screenplays - movies. Not only do I come alive when I sit down with pen and paper, but I make entire worlds come alive. And, yes, I do actually sit down with PEN and PAPER. I’ve always been in love with words. And I’ve also been extremely fearful of them. I know the power they yield, and the hurt and pain they can cause. But it’s the beauty of words that comes alive when they are strung together in just the right way.

I didn’t always know I wanted to be a writer, but I always knew that there was a place inside of my head that I could go to and escape from the worries and hurt that the real world bogged down on me. A place where characters came alive to either confirm my feelings and fears, or protect me from them; a place where I controlled the outcome.

I remember exactly how I came to start on my journey of screenwriting for a living. One night, while my husband vegged out in front of the TV from his long day of “practicing” medicine, I asked him, “do you have long, continuous conversations in your head?” Well, after convincing him not to write the prescription for Paxil, and having explained in more detail the thoughts and ideas that ran through my head on a daily basis, I decided it was time to put these ideas to paper.

I’ve written a total of ten screenplays, placed in a number of screenwriting contests - including the Nicholl Fellowship - and attended NYU’s MFA in Creative Writing program (and as my son says - “she quit school”). I write for a living because it does exactly that - it makes me live. It is what it is, and I am what I am - an unemployed, unsold, unrecognized, unpublished writer - and I LOVE it. Okay, most days.


So, I decided to join the world of blogging. Why? Well, if I knew that, I seriously doubt I would be blogging.

First, you might ask, what might I have to say that could possibly be important? Not a damn thing. But I do know there are hoards of important people who run off at the mouth on a daily basis, and it causes me, this country and the world a ton of problems. I figure, how much trouble can posting my thoughts, feelings and experiences about life and breaking into screenwriting cause? Here's hoping that this little comment doesn’t come back and bite me in the butt - big time.

If experience in life is calculated, in some formula, to add up to wisdom, then, maybe, just maybe, by sharing my experience with others, I can get... smarter? Naw, I was never really good at math. Okay, okay - I HAVE NO LIFE. See, there, I said it. Can we move on?

Oh, well, maybe it’s a way for this writer, who sits alone countless hours, to connect with others without buying a plane ticket. I’m cheap - and I HATE flying.

So, what shall I blog about? As my blog title indicates, it is what it is. My road to making something out of this strange need to get up every day and put words to paper (yes, I do it the old-fashioned way most days - pen and paper).

I’m new to this, so bear with me.

Stay tuned - or not.