Side long

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It’s subtle, almost imperceptible;

The sense you’re being measured.

 

It’s not malicious; it may not be conscious,

And it’s not the metric of any ruler or scale.

Rather it’s based on history.

 

Not world history; not even your history,

But a history of pain and joy;

A history of violence and caresses;

A history of anticipation, both eager and dread.

 

It’s a measurement made during a moment’s pause;

Through a renegade lock of hair;

In a side-long glance rather than challenging stare.

 

We measure the people we meet,

Seeking solace that this one’s different,

Checking for warning echoes of past sorrows.

Hoping for the best. Wary of the worst.

 

I am measured. You are measured. And yet,

The result speaks more of the measurer than the measured.

Unlucky Lucy – a review

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What if every time…

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someone tried to tell you something…

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they inserted a photo or video…

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that showed the same thing they said?

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Pretty irritating, eh?

Welcome to the first 30 minutes of Luc Besson’s Lucy, released to theatres this weekend.

(I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers, below.)

What could have been—should have been—an amazing sci-fi thriller about the possible repercussions of a young drug mule who becomes exposed to the drug and slowly finds her brain building to 100% functional capacity, was instead a massive disappointment weighted down by a ton of metaphoric sledgehammers and drowning in a sea of over-exposition.

To be sure, there is a really interesting movie somewhere in the middle of the morass that ironically becomes its own metaphor by the end of the movie. But it’s as though Besson the Director didn’t trust the story written by Besson the Screenwriter to simply let the story explore itself.

As the drug takes hold of Lucy, she goes from being an interesting female character (if a little cliché) to an automaton who simply narrates…literally narrates…what is happening inside her.

The drug lord Mr. Jang has the emotional range of complete indifference to mild irritation, which no doubt also expresses the feelings of acclaimed actor Min-Sik Choi, who portrayed him.

Even the calming voice and reason of Morgan Freeman’s Prof. Norman quickly gives way to befuddled camera-mugging and WTF?

The only truly interesting character was French police detective Pierre Del Rio, played beautifully by Amr Waked, who clearly functions as the eyes of the audience. As a friend of mine pointed out, even he at one point turns to Lucy and asks “What do you need me for?” What, indeed.

Lucy cast

To be certain, the visual effects in several parts of the movie were stunning, but as with so many movies I’ve seen in the past few years (e.g., Prometheus, Transcendence), the visual effects have become sleight-of-hand to keep you (or try) from seeing the weaknesses of plot and character.

The action sequences highlighted in the trailers take about as much time in the full movie as they did in the trailer, and so little is ever in doubt with the plot that the movie truly cannot be described a thriller.

But perhaps where the movie was most disappointing was in its promise to explore the nature of what it is to be human when faced with super-human capabilities. THIS is what the movie should have been about!

But Besson largely discards the question as quickly as he raises it in two short scenes involving a call home to mom and a simple kiss. And in both cases, Lucy coldly explains her conundrum, her human fears represented by the odd tear drop down an otherwise lifeless cheek. Rather than see Lucy struggle with her transformation, we watch her turn into a robot bent on a mission…a mission that she basically accomplishes without struggle.

But just to be sure we get the great metaphysical concepts behind the story, Besson then reverts to his earlier legerdemain, smacking the audience around with a brutally metaphoric journey through time and space. I give you intergalactic sperm meteors…you’ll know then when you see them.

And all this rancour without even touching on the biochemical, biomedical, anthropological and astronomical issues that run rampant in this mere 90 minutes.

This could have been an amazing movie. It wasn’t.

(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission.)

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part Two

Available now stamp

In the last post, we talked about the challenge of finding someone to critique your work in a way that was actionable; someone who was neither too hard nor too soft on you. Below, we continue the conversation by address the need for that person to be available for ongoing discussion and the limitations of options like coverage services.

Availability: A lot of screenwriters rely on coverage services to get feedback on their screenplays and there are a number of reputable organizations and readers out there.

The challenge, I find, with these services is that they tend to be unidirectional and/or very brief. You send your work, you receive a written report, you may receive an oral report—which allows you to ask questions—but ultimately, it’s “here you go”.

You can get more, you can have follow-up, but it’ll cost more.

As well, I think you really miss out on improving your own skills, knowledge and understanding of story through the critiquing of the work of others.

I also worry that the use of a professional service when your work and skill sets are at a nascent level is largely a waste of their time and your money. The feedback you receive will likely be so broad, so sweeping that it could easily overwhelm you. As well, any minor change you make at one stage is liable to make any of the remaining feedback moot.

Better, I think, that you find someone who is also trying to grow their skills, who understands and shares your needs and fragility. They want and need your help as much as you want and need theirs, and so you’ll be more apt to make time for each other.

Again, it is about building a relationship of trust.

Transient state: Unfortunately, no two people develop at the same rate, and even if you find yourself in a trusting artistic relationship, you will likely find that one of you is ready to move forward faster than the other. It happens in all facets of life.

As your Art develops, you will find that your needs change, and that the partner that got you to one stage of development cannot get you to the next one. It is time to bow to your partner and move on to the next one.

If you’re lucky, both of you recognize this and move on without acrimony. Not everyone is lucky. But for your Art to flourish, the move is necessary.

I wish I could tell you that there is an easy way to make the transition, but in my experience, it is like the end of a marriage and the need to start dating again. The footwork is shaky and the verbiage is awkward, but you won’t die of embarrassment.

The key is to remember why you’re doing this, why it is important to you, and then to simply move forward.

You’ll be okay.

 

Coverage services I have used or have had recommended to me:

Marsha Mason at Why The Face

Terry Zinner at A Film Writer

Scriptapalooza Coverage

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission because it was available now)

Finding the Critical Sweet Spot – Part One

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One of the biggest challenges I have faced in developing my writing was in finding the right people to critique my work. Classes have helped, as I’ve come across some wonderful instructors, but otherwise, finding people who (a) gave me actionable feedback and (b) were available for ongoing discussion has been tricky.

Actionable feedback: To really move your Art forward, you need outside opinions, but those opinions need to be of the variety that helps you see not only what works and what doesn’t, but also how to understand both and push the work further.

Although praise like “I loved it” is nice and criticism like “I just didn’t feel it” can be crushing, neither helps you develop your Art because neither offers you specifics. This is typically a sign of someone who is not near your skill level and cannot articulate their thoughts (not meant as a criticism of the person offering feedback).

Likewise, you don’t necessarily benefit from a critique of someone way above your skill level. Through no fault of their own, these individuals are likely to take certain information for granted and provide feedback you cannot work with because you don’t understand it and/or that overwhelms you in terms of sheer volume. This, I believe, is why so few experts in any discipline are good teachers of that discipline. We all simply forget what it’s like not to know or know how to apply “the basics”.

Instead, we need to find someone who is roughly at the same skill level as ourselves and ideally, who suffers different weaknesses or challenges than ourselves. In such a situation, a symbiotic relationship can form.

These are the people who will recognize and help you see what is working while at the same time, point out the problem areas and offer insights (or commiseration) on how to address the issues.

Such a meeting of equals will also help ensure that one of you doesn’t feel like you’re doing all the heavy lifting in the relationship and getting very little in return. This is critical in building a relationship of trust, particularly when both of you are making yourself vulnerable in exposing your Art, untested.

In the next post, we’ll look at the availability question and then wrap up with a brief discussion of the transience of it all.

(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission…how sweet)

Many levels of review – Part Two

Whenever someone asks me to review their writing, I try to be thorough and look at it from many levels. Yesterday, we looked at how I approach writing from the 30,000- and 5,000-foot levels. Below, we dig deeper.

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The view from 1,000 feet: Now that I’ve identified the major structural and thematic issues and determined there is a reason to keep reading, I go back to the beginning and really start to peel things apart.

If I have a thing for character—and I do—I might follow an individual character through the story to see if I can reverse engineer the writer’s profile of that character. I am making this sound much more formal than it really is. Basically, what do I know about the character and are his or her actions and reactions consistent with that knowledge given: (a) where that character is now in the story; and (b) where he or she is trying to get or accomplish?

From the plot perspective, I begin to look at individual scenes and ask if the interplay between characters makes sense for their relationship and respective goals within the scene. For that matter, does each character in a scene have a clear goal?

How have the characters within the scene changed from one end of it to the other? Did one start with the upper hand and that power shift somewhere through the scene to the other character? This last point is not a necessity, but is merely one way a scene can experience reversal.

Likewise, is the scene clear with one predominant purpose or has the writer tried to accomplish too much too quickly, muddying the scene and leaving the reader uncertain as to what refers to what?

At a slightly broader level, how do the scenes play against each other? Are there smooth or logical segues from one scene to another, and if not, does the hard plot swing work? Does the scene in question set up a future one or pay off a previous one, and has it done this job effectively?

200_foot_view

The view from 200 feet: Now I really start to get into the weeds, looking at paragraphs and individual lines. From the narrative perspective, does the reader have all the information he or she needs to make sense of the story? Does the scenery or environment serve almost as another character at this point, representing a source of conflict or support for your characters? Again, this last point isn’t necessary, but can be quite effective such as in movies like The Perfect Storm.

Alternatively, has the writer massively over-written the narrative, demonstrating his or her superhuman vocabulary and/or visual imagination at the expense of the story and poor befuddled reader? As a personal aside, this is my greatest sin as a writer…but then you probably already knew that. Can I recommend any broad strokes edits (not copy edits) to help reduce the clutter and maintain the flow for the reader?

If it’s a screenplay, does the writer interrupt the reader too often with small directorial nods to the actors? For example, during a particularly heated scene of dialogue between the protagonist and antagonist, is the writer constantly reminding the actors to furrow their brows or shrug? I try to determine whether these narrative directions are absolutely necessary to get the idea of the scene across.

The problem here is that the regular intrusion of direction takes the reader out of the moment, disrupting the story and the emotional power of the characters. The senses, if only at the mental level, are forced to trip back and forth between things like subtle movements and emotive energy. Thus, in even the most action- or tension-packed scenes, too much narrative can sap the energy of the scene such that the read becomes plodding. By removing these superfluous lines, the reading speeds up and the energy of the scene is renewed.

This brings us to dialogue, which is easily my greatest challenge in screenwriting. I think novel writing gives you a bit more leeway with dialogue but I am less familiar with the medium from a writing perspective.

When I review dialogue, I try to sense how natural the dialogue feels…perhaps even reading it aloud, if I am not certain. Are these sentences that real characters would say and are the lines apt for the character who is saying them? From what I have surmised about the character, would he or she use those particular words in that way or to that purpose? Is the character saying exactly what he or she is thinking (on-the-nose) or is there some sense of subtext, whether known to the character or not?

Similarly, is the dialogue as tight as it could be, saying only what needs to be said and in the best way? Now, please note, I did not say or mean to imply in the shortest way, with the fewest words. People rarely keep their sentences to a minimum, but rather when caught up in the heat of the moment, tend to spew a bit more than necessary. There is a cadence to an individual’s speech patterns, so each of the characters should have their own cadences.

In a conversation between two or more characters, is the subject and banter clear or am I left with some uncertainty about what line corresponds as a response to what previous line or thought. To map it out somewhat mathematically, it might read something like A then A’, B then B’, C then C’, etc., rather than ABC then A’, D then B’C’, etc., where each of the letters and its prime counterpart represent a thought and its response or reaction. By the same token, however, I have to be alert and sensitive to cases where it is perfectly natural for that character to blurt out a series of thoughts and the resulting confusion may be consistent with the plot.

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Splashdown: Only once all of that has been settled, do I get to the cosmetic aspects of story review. This is where I might recommend copy edits and what have you to ensure the screenplay or novel is clean. This can include looking for stylistic inconsistencies (e.g., capitalization) or spelling errors. Personally, this part bores the hell out of me and I know that for every error or inconsistency I find, I have missed two or three others. As a courtesy, however, I will point out those that I do find and hope someone else catches the rest.

I find that by the time we reach splashdown, writers either love me or hate me…and I am okay with that. Although I prefer the former, I understand the latter and don’t take it personally. Putting your work out there for critique and possible criticism is difficult and not just a little nerve wracking. I applaud anyone who does that almost as hard as I applaud them for having written in the first place.

I just hope that, at the end of the day, I have helped the writer improve his or her work.

(Images are the property of their owners and are used here without permission because it’s more impactful.)

Giving Feedback – The Reviewer Strikes Back

Okay. So, now that we’ve discussed asking for and receiving feedback, is there anything we should consider before giving feedback.

We’ve all been on the other side, awaiting a kind word or a withering criticism from a respected compatriot or senior, so we should all be aware of the power of the right word at the right time. You have been given an honour by the recipient and should give him or her and the work the respect they deserve.

Below, I offer some thoughts on how to approach the feedback process when asked, but (sorry for the broken record) I want to hear what you think too.

Feedback is personal. It reflects who you are, what you believe and how you feel. Don’t try to make it otherwise, lest you lose any value it provides. The writer asked you for very specific reasons. To give them anything less than you is a disservice.

Make sure, however, that your feedback is more than just opinion, even though that forms the basis of it. There is a world of difference between superficial criticism and thoughtful critique. Criticism is about saying what you feel. Critique is about asking yourself why you feel that way and discussing what it means with the writer.

Ask questions. Be sure to ask questions both before and after you’ve completed your analysis. What kind of feedback are you looking for? Is there anything you specifically want me to keep an eye out for? What was your thinking behind this scene or character?

Without knowing the answers to these kinds of questions, I don’t think you can offer the most effective feedback. Likewise, the answers may provide you with a framework on which to build your feedback or tell if you’ve misunderstood something significant.

Be honest. Never be afraid to tell the truth, no matter how brutal. You’re the best judge of what you think the writer can handle, but by the same token, they’ve asked for your help and holding back may be counterproductive. It’s possible to be honest without crushing someone, and I don’t mean making a shit sandwich (good news-bad news-good news). Rather, walk them through your thinking as you read their stuff and, even if they don’t beat you to the conclusion, at least they understand your reasoning.

And wherever possible, don’t leave them hanging. Offer suggestions as to how the work could be improved or fixed. If you have no ideas pre-emptively, brainstorm it with them. If nothing else, it will show the writer that you’ve invested in his or her work.

DON’T COPYEDIT. That’s not feedback, it’s copyediting. Unless the spelling of a word or the punctuation of a sentence significantly impacts the meaning of a sentence, leave it alone. It ends up being a distraction from the important conversations. If their climax sucks (you’ll want to be more specific), who cares that they should have used a semi-colon or incorrectly used “its” instead of “it’s”?

Put it in writing. Even the most seasoned writer will miss important tidbits of information while scrambling to take notes on your feedback. By writing your feedback out, preferably within the manuscript itself, you give the writer the chance to follow what you’re saying and how you’re saying it, rather than focusing on the details of the feedback, which they can do at their leisure.

Look for the bigger picture. As you compile your feedback, look for trends or commonalities. As with receiving feedback, ask yourself if any groups of notes refer to the same issue; e.g., a lot of scenes take too long to get started or could be started later without losing the story. Be ready to provide examples, of course, as the bigger picture is typically less obvious, but try to avoid getting stuck in the weeds.

Besides, if there are fundamental issues with the story or its presentation, then all of the nitpicky stuff is unimportant and you’ll be wasting your and the writer’s time.

Your feedback; the writer’s work. Even if you inscribe your comments on stone (see “burning bush”), the writer does not have to agree with you. It is important as you analyze someone’s work that you remember it is their work. Although you can help them develop their voice and style, it is not your task to change their voice or style. Likewise, and more importantly, it is not your job to convert their work to your voice.

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack

Me acting like I could ever teach anything about comedy to the very funny ladies Nicole Rubacha and Megan Mack