(Ab)Use your imagination

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Four more reps! C’mon, you can do it. Three more reps! Don’t quit now. Two more reps! You’re a champion. One more rep! Almost there. Annnnnd, you are done. Way to go!

Phew!

As you may be able to tell, I recently started a fitness routine, a boot camp if you will. The nice thing about it is that I can still eat and drink whatever I want and the only reason I break into a sweat is because Toronto’s experiencing a nasty heat/humidity wave.

Just over a week ago, I started a screenwriting boot camp of sorts called Screenwriting U, which is designed to teach you how to create the most stunning and saleable scripts that Hollywood will eat up. (My apologies if this sounds like an infomercial.)

All I know right now is the program—the ProSeries—is kicking my ass.

For the next six months, I will have an assignment practically every day (including weekends) that is designed to push me to excel at EVERY aspect of screenwriting; e.g., concept, plotting, character, conflict, narrative, marketing.

I won’t go into any detail as to what we are doing—that would be improper and unethical as the fine folks at Screenwriting U have to make a living—but I can tell you about the outcomes.

At the moment, we’re working on concepts.

Once most of us come up with a concept that really interests us, we typically start writing right away, whether actual dialogue or mapping out plot points. We’re excited. We want to see our amazing idea come to life. Tomorrow is too far away.

No such luxury here.

In the true Full Metal Jacket sense, the instructors are making us break our ideas down to build them back up. And once we’ve done that, we do it again. And again. And again. Each time with a slightly altered method and/or goal.

In nine days, what was six interesting ideas (to me, at least), has become 30 new ideas, some of which are completely lame whereas others are pretty damned good, and more importantly, a hell of a lot more solid that the originals.

It’s a brainstormers wet dream and nightmare all rolled into one.

No matter how thoroughly I think I have developed an idea, just a little more time (or time away) shows me that I can go a little further with the idea or take it in new directions. As with the writing process itself, it is the permission to fail spectacularly with an eye toward finding something truly amazing.

And like physical exercise…what, I did that once…it is painful as hell in the early going, but it does get easier. And when it gets easier, I’ve got to make it hurt like hell again. I’m building imagination muscle memory. I’m making these thought processes second nature.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go change…oh, wait, that would be telling.

PS Hal Croasmun, our drill sergeant, is nothing like the guy in Full Metal Jacket, unless you wanted to imagine verbal enthusiasm replacing verbal abuse.

(First image is used without permission because I like to push the envelope, or any other piece of stationery, for that matter. Clip art below clipped without permission.)

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First d(r)aft

Three days. I have three days to come up with another 10 pages from my latest screenplay for a reading and critique in my screenwriting class. And I have nothing.

Well, that’s not technically true. I have something. I have the architecture of my screenplay written out…I know where I want to go and what steps I need to take, broadly speaking, to get there.

But those are just a series of incomplete sentences that barely fill a page. I need 10 pages of a screenplay. I need narrative (not too much, as is my wont) and dialogue, and yet everything I write right now reads like crap. Absolute, utter drivel.

Welcome to the first draft.

I love to brainstorm and come up with new ideas. Ideas for new screenplays. Ideas for scenes within those screenplays.

Brainstorming is exciting. Everything is possible, so I am at my most creative. Nothing comes off the table, and every idea leads to several others.

I love to plan. I like to arrange those ideas into a semblance of order…it is quite literally the assembly of a puzzle. What if I moved this scene from the first part of Act II to just before the climax? How does that change the story?

But at some point, I have to stop brainstorming and planning. I have to start writing. I have to take those incomplete sentences and turn them into coherent scenes of people interacting with people—directly and indirectly—to accomplish goals and thwart those of others.

And even that description of the process sounds interesting. But then I begin typing and my words take on the feel and smell of two-week old cod.

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If the mom character was any stiffer, you could iron shirts on her. Why not just have the son respond “Oh yeah!” and euthanize all of your creative ambitions?

You want the boat captain to do what? Even the most psychotic of fishermen wouldn’t contemplate that idiotic move! What was your research: old Popeye cartoons?

You suck! You suck! You suck!

Okay. Feel better now? Had your little tantrum. Your little pity party. Ready to move forward? Take a deep breath.

This is your first draft, and it’s gonna suck. That’s what first drafts do. But it’s the first draft that sucks, not you.

The idea is still sound. Story improvements you can’t see right now will arise in the workshopping process. The dialogue can be massaged and the narrative edited…in your second draft. You can move some of the scenes around to enhance the conflict…in your third draft.

The only thing about what you are doing today that is anywhere near a final draft is the name of the screenwriting software. [NOTE TO FINAL DRAFT: Give some thought to changing the name of your software. Too much pressure for some of us to handle.]

You’ll be fine. Your story will be fine.

Just start typing…

I said that out loud, didn’t I?

Several years ago, when I was first starting out as a professional writer, I received the opportunity to work for a couple of monthly science magazines published by the American Chemical Society. Eager to impress and excited at the thought of seeing my name bylined, I dove into every project with relish…and apparently very little forethought.

A regular ritual at the magazines was for the entire editorial staff to sit down every couple of weeks and hammer out the best headlines for each of the next issue’s articles. Rather than leave the job to the individual writers, my Editor felt this was the best way to get the best ideas. In principle, I agree with him, although you also have to be wary of sliding into group-think, where the lowest common denominator wins…but I digress.

In the first such meeting in which I was invited to participate—second week on the job—we were trying to come up with a title for the health article, which discussed the sexually transmitted infection chlamydia and the fact that many women with the infection didn’t know they had it. After listening to a couple really boring titles, I decided to show how clever and punny I was, and chose to riff off the title of a movie that was popular at the time.

Chlamydia. A quiet killer. It was obvious.

Silence of the Clams!

Silence of the editorial meeting, more like. My Editor looked at mean, turned his head sideways, and said “You’re serious.”

Oh, oh. Something’s gone wrong. Something doesn’t make sense. Why is everyone looking at me like that? Why is…? Oh, shit.

Luckily, everyone in the office thought it was funny, probably more because of the look on my face rather than any inherent amusement. But that’s the point. I kept the job and wrote much better headlines—or at least more acceptable ones—for several more years.

Since that day, I have instituted (if only for myself) what I call “the 12-year-old boy rule”.

Basically, if you want to print anything, you should always say it out loud in front of a 12-year-old boy, and if he even so much as smirks, there is something salacious in your idea and you really need to rethink it.

Still, every once in a while, I wonder if I couldn’t make that title work (other than for porn).

And of course, I am still addicted to puns, much to the chagrin of most people who know me.