Decisions, Decisions

Just got done with my Morning Pages, which I haven’t mentioned here since this blog is all but a ghost town. I’ve been doing them since… I think late May. Originally it was all on looseleaf paper, though now I have some permanence with composition books. I do it the vast majority of mornings — definitely every weekday — though I’ve had the occasional weekend hiccup.

Last week I woke up every day at 6am and started writing. First with Morning Pages, then with a TV pilot I’m working on. I made great progress. It’s an idea I’ve been sitting on for a few years now. I originally saw it as a comic, something darkly humorous but very specific in tone and execution. It was so specific that I could only see one artist drawing it, and though he’s a good friend and offered to do a design whenever I needed it, I never really saw the book coming together without him drawing interiors. So I didn’t proceed beyond my initial notes and direction.

Not too long ago, while bouncing between too many outlines, I realized that was stupid. I should just write it, get it out there, and then it doesn’t have to take up space in my brain anymore. So I started on a more detailed outline for it as a TV pilot. I figured out what needed to be addressed, worked out some loose ideas that gave me enough freedom to improvise on the page and went to work.

I began writing when I had time, which anyone “busy” person will tell you is never. So I wrote at the end of long days, happy when I could even get ten minutes in at night. Sometimes it would be exactly ten minutes, other days 20-30, and some days I’d find an hour or more before I got too tired to continue.

The problem wasn’t how little I was writing — it was how I prioritized my writing. I’ve had such poor habits when it comes to personal writing work that I was happy to be writing at all. Even five minutes, the “short time method” made me feel better about my day and my writing, because some writing is better than no writing. But I decided to make a change.

I used to go to the gym four days a week, getting up between 5 and 6am every day and going no matter how bad/tired/unmotivated I felt. Once I got there and started lifting I was okay, and when I left I felt great. Plus, since it was the first thing I did, I now had the rest of the day to not worrying about squeezing it in and feeling bad when I didn’t. (I’ve been struggling since last Summer with finding enough time for writing and fitness, but that’s another post.)

Surely I could do that for my writing; prioritize it, make it the first thing I did every day (in addition to the Morning Pages I’ve been doing for 2+ months. And again, I thought, It will be great not having to worry about how I feel after working all day or if I have errands to run since I’ve already done the writing. And for exactly one week, five long days in a row, I did exactly that. When my alarm went off at 6am, I got out of bed and turned it off. I didn’t snooze, didn’t crawl back into bed. I got up, fed the animals and went to work.

The first day I was so tired I only managed about 30 minutes of writing. But that was 30 minutes before work. I would have the option to write again later if I wanted — though I didn’t do any that night. I picked up steam throughout the week. I didn’t track page counts but I think I wrote 30-40 pages in 5 mornings before work. And Friday was a crap day. I petered out. The story went as far as the detail in the outline took me, and then the cracks started to appear. I knew it was way too long. Way too long. And I didn’t know what to write next because where I got to all made sense, but to get to the next part I needed something I hadn’t figured out yet.

It’s Thursday morning and I haven’t written on the pilot in almost a week. I haven’t fixed the outline, haven’t figured out what I needed to figure out in order to move forward and closer to FADE OUT. But I figured out something else in the course of my Morning Pages; something I know, want to change, but never do. I write extremely execution-dependent scripts. There’s not a lot of “Guy wants something, someone/something stands in his way, he has to figure out a way to overcome.” There are a ton of moving parts, a complicated plot trying to hide the fact that I really just want to write about people and not plots. Personal struggles, success and failure,  will they/won’t they. And the best stories do both, of course, but in terms of my own work, the stuff I write for me, I tend to try and make sure there’s something commercial so it’s not just pedestrian struggles — though there are plenty of great stories about every day life when the characters are rich enough.

Call it problems of scale, an attempt to be commercial without being overly high concept, or me just being stubborn. Trust me, in this case, my stubborn adherence to the initial tone of the idea is the problem. There’s an A plot and a B plot that work against one another, and while the A plot should be the thrust of the series… it’s actually something I, and my protagonist, don’t want to focus on. And really that’s what my story problems come down to. There’s the story I want to tell versus the story that should be told based on the dominoes I’ve set up.

So after three frustratingly handwritten  pages and this blog post, I have no idea what to do. Part of me wants to stop fighting, scrap the script and make sure I pay off the promise of the premise. Another part wants to charge through, stick to my guns and just get to an ending so I can work on something new. And the third part of me, the coward who doesn’t write enough, wants to toss it in the circular file and just move on without seeing it through to completion. And each part seems completely valid.

I’m standing at the crossroads, knowing the only way out is through, and that I need to be writing right now instead of distracting myself with this. But even if I open the doc and sit down in front of it, I don’t know what’s next. I suppose I could write out of sequence, get to the stuff I know works and come down and fill in the (current) problem area later (even if there’s plenty in the preceding 67 pages that doesn’t work — did I mention it’s probably going to be 100 pages…?).

Guess the only answer that really matters is that I need to put in the time, no matter what the result.

The Problem with “LYP”

“LYP” was a screenplay I started and never finished.

It hatched from nothing on New Year’s Eve 2008 and six months later I actually got around to writing it.  For 9 working days across a two-week stretch I wrote with the goal of completing 10 pages a day.  9 working days and 81 pages later, I don’t think I was doing too poorly considering the longest thing I had written before that was 51 pages.  Although, now that I think about it, that particular abandoned script was written in less than 24 hours and begun with no real story or planning involved.  I just got home from dinner and wrote, then did a little more the next day.

My goal was the Tony Gilroy school of writing as passed to me by Bryan Edward Hill.  Write ten pages a day, every day.  Each day you start from Page 1 and revise what’s come before so when you get to a final draft it’s really tight and really polished.  Or at least that’s what I remember of it.

“LYP” was a story that needed to get out.  It came to me in a flash while I was getting ready to go out, I typed up a one-page synopsis and fired off to Hill.  I then spent almost 7 months figuring out the story, and whether I could pull the trigger on actually writing it.  It was about murder and relationships and feeling lost and time travel (sort of), and I wanted to write it.  So one day I sat down and promised myself I’d write ten pages a day until I finished.

I wrote 81 pages, stopped when I couldn’t write any more on that last day and never picked it up again.  Outside of first drafts of comics done in an unrestricted screenplay format, I haven’t written a word of a screenplay since.  It wasn’t because I couldn’t keep writing and power through to a bad first draft.  It wasn’t because I ran out of steam or got “writer’s block.”  I even sent the unfinished draft to Hill and got some great overall notes and a way to fix some things I didn’t even know were wrong about the opening.  I couldn’t get back to it for some reason, but as of today I think I know.

I’ve been reading “Story” by Robert McKee before I go to bed and sometimes on the can.  It’s my third or fourth attempt, having previously been derailed by Stephen Gaghan and boredom.  This morning I read about how a character making a simple choice – to lie or tell the truth – ends up creating two very different stories, and a different character.  I let this sink in on all day, nothing I didn’t know, and then had this epiphany a few minutes ago.

Stories are supposed to build so that each successive choice (or obstacle) for a character is greater than the last.  His final choice should be the toughest thing he’s ever had to do, and a real test of who he is as a person.  The problem with “LYP” is that the choice my protagonist makes doesn’t work for who he is as a character.  I made what would be the biggest decision of his life the first real choice in the screenplay and what spins us off into Act 2.  The decision is made so lightly, and the choices he has to make later on don’t exactly escalate.  I screwed my story, and my protagonist, in one fell swoop.

I think that’s why I started not liking the story as I got into Act 2.  It wasn’t because it didn’t have the “Fun and Games” trailer moments Blake Snyder talks about in “Save the Cat,” but simply that there was a major structural (and character) flaw that I didn’t catch until 50 pages after it happened.

It feels good to know this, but I’m also not going back to “LYP” any time soon.  It’s not the right story for right now, both for my life and for my writing samples.  Question is…

What do I want to write?