Monday, September 30, 2013

How to Write a Script

The Ballad of Julio César
May 2012
It doesn't matter your background, aspirations, hopes, dreams, or talents. Even if you've never written a creative word in your life, by following the steps below, you'll be cranking out the hits in no time. That's a guarantee. 

Tragedies, comedies, farces, monologues, dialogues, screenplays -- all of them lie at the very tips of your fingers. Yes, your fingers. 

I offer this advice as a free service to the community, asking nothing in return. Just promise to mention me in the credits. 

(And cut me in for 10-15% of the profits. Because a girl's gotta eat.)

How to Write a Script:

Step One: Brew some coffee.  As with any noteworthy life event, all good writing hinges on the completion of this critical step. (Although in the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that just now I happen to be drinking tea. So you might as well stop reading. There's no way I'm going to say anything worthwhile in the rest of this post.) 

Step Two: Respect conflict. Much like Friday nights at my old apartment complex, a good script can't seem to exist without conflict. Neither can life. So rather than letting the inevitable conflicts split your focus, allow them to become the inciting incidents that drive you to the keys. When conflicts arise and frustrations mount, trace your emotions back to the source, pull them up by the roots, and plant them deeply in the soil of your script, fertilizing them with all the seething froth of broiling emotions that accompany unresolved tensions. There's nothing an audience responds to so well as raw human emotion.


And things randomly blowing up. Audiences love a good explosion. 


Step Three: Record what the voices say. The beauty of script writing is that settings are dispensed with in a few phrases and emotional responses are at most sketched, left to be inferred and fleshed out at the discretion of the actors and directors. This leaves you to focus your remaining energies on the primary task of channeling the voices in your head directly onto paper.

Good luck with that.

Step Four: Open yourself to failure. In the end, it turns out that writing a script is the easy part. After all, you just have to brew some coffee, think of a conflict, plunk yourself down, and churn out some snappy dialogue.

But you then must have the script read by others, opening it up to the enthusiastic criticism of your peers. After licking your wounds and making edits based on their constructive criticisms comes the simple matter of finding a performance venue and convincing a cast of right-minded humans to perform some live shows, possibly directing them yourself, swilling coffee all the while and wondering what is this hideous thing you have created and why anybody in his right mind would even come to see it. 

Then comes the horror of opening night: a truly gruesome ordeal during which you will huddle backstage with two paper bags, one marked "hyperventilate" and the other marked "barf," both of which you will clutch to your heaving chest while praying for the end. 

Even leading up to the performance, things can go wildly awry. A simple table reading can reveal a script deeply flawed or riddled with inaccuracies, driving you back to your Hobbit hole of a study, your only companions a defective script and a vat of coffee dark and dense enough to mirror the anguish bubbling up from the depths of your soul. 

Even if an initial reading goes well, a script that reads well around a table may fall apart in live performance, revealing scenes that work well in theory but fall flat before a breathing audience. There's nothing worse than skulking about backstage, clutching at your hair and moaning, "Laugh, people. Laugh. That's a funny part," before reaching in despair for the appropriately-labeled paper bag. 

No matter how hideous, though, Step Four will eventually come to an end... revealing fresh terrors ahead.

Step Five: Find a publisher. After the above horrors, submission to an acquisitions editor will leave you only mildly queasy. After all, unlike during a live performance, you can be assured that only one person will be judging your work at a time, and at least this time you won't have to be lurking nearby watching it go down in real time. Besides, if your Script Baby can survive the early stages from table reading through live performance, then there's a distinct possibility that it's not complete drivel. But even then, it might not be what publishers are looking for, and even if it does eventually find a publishing home, it might not sell that well. 

When it comes right down to it, the truth about script writing (or any kind of writing, for that matter) is that it's really not that hard to sit down and do

Honestly, almost anybody can do it. If you can string together conversations in real time, then you can most likely write decent dialogue. 

But like with most worthwhile pursuits, the difference between success and failure in writing pivots on your ability to persevere through setbacks, missteps, and failures toward the desired end result, never giving up, no matter how long it takes.

You must be willing to sit alone in a darkened room for long stretches of time, nursing a cup of fragrant, steaming sludge while wrestling with the flaws of your Script Baby. You must be willing to invest large chunks of your life to this pursuit, while simultaneously acknowledging that in the end, it might all come to nothing anyway.

You must put your shoulder under the load of your mistakes and force them upward toward success. You must surrender a piece of yourself to the page, then hold it up before the world for summary judgment. 

In short, you must endure the entire mass of of agonies on the way to opening night in order to achieve the ecstasy of one riotous curtain call. 

Plus you must drink coffee.  Lots and lots of coffee. 

* * *

For more information on my slowly-growing collection of adorable Script Babies, feel free to visit Brooklyn Publishers

Monday, September 23, 2013

How to Be Awesome

This weekend when my sister turned up for church, she sported sets of scratches up and down her legs that seemed to speak to a recent tussle with Wolverine.

"What happened to you?" I hissed.

"I ran through a blackberry bush," she shrugged.

Given her day-to-day activities, such answers should no longer prompt a browraise. We're speaking here of someone who was late to a training session because she first stopped by a friend's tack box for a Horse Anniversary party before stopping to help another friend round up some escaped cows. So learning that she'd done something like slice up her legs while running through Florida marsh land in training for some horrible-sounding athletic event (comparable to a Spartan or a Tough Mudder) no longer comes as much of a surprise.

It's just how she rolls.

She carries bruises on her legs from jiu jitsu and sports a finely-toned set of arms from boxing. She has stamps in her passport and blue ribbons piled up in her room from dressage competitions. She shoots guns, quotes everything from Shakespeare to Douglas Adams, cuts her own hair, gets along with pretty much everybody, and is literally one of the smartest people that I know. (Much to our brother's chagrin, she outscored all of us on standardized testing). 

I asked her recently which of her accomplishments she's the most proud of. Among other things, she mentioned being able to ride through a buck without getting thrown. (Although I did see her get thrown from a bucking horse once. She landed on her feet.)

Besides all this, she has the best stories: she once broke her nose while swimming with horses in the ocean. That's right. Swimming with horses... in the ocean. 
*double thumbs up!*

But all of those things aren't what make her awesome. What makes her awesome are her underlying attitudes toward life. Her secret is that she's learned to live out the following three strategies.

How to Be Awesome:

1. Like what you like and don't be ashamed. If we're honest, there's nothing that we love better than to hear experts speak passionately on subjects dearest to their hearts. Even when we don't necessarily agree with them or even understand everything they're talking about, our hearts thrill to the fire in their eyes and the conviction in their voices. 

Hence the tremendous success of Ted Talks. 

The point here is that if reading some C.S. Forester or Patrick O'Brien novel sparks a sudden interest in 19th century sailing, chase that interest. Scratch the mental itch until it either dies down or is replaced by a new one. Watch documentaries, read books, study diagrams and charts, learn sea shanties, and travel to visit exhibits without stopping to wonder whether or not your interest will ever amount to anything. 

Learn to enjoy learning in its own right, knowing that sooner or later - once your acquisition of information reaches critical mass - bits of it will begin to seep into all that you do without your even having make conscious effort. 

One day you'll be a complete novice, not knowing fore from aft. The next, quicker than you can say poop deck, you'll be throwing down words like jib, fo'c'sle, and capstan while your friends look on in awe. Or look on while quietly mocking you... because genius isn't always appreciated. But don't worry. They don't know the mizzen mast from the transom, so their opinions are irrelevant. 

Every person who is an expert was once just someone who was curious about the world. And people who are curious about the world are awesome.

2. Take risks. A few weeks ago I was completely charmed to hear my eight-year-old nephew refer to my frequent travels as my "adventures."  

"When you're off on your adventures," he began, before continuing on to question me on some relevant point. To be honest, I can't actually remember what he asked. I was too busy thinking that although adventure seems inherent to the concept of travel, there are actually many people for whom travel means something entirely different.

I know one older couple whose yearly vacation since time immemorial has been to visit the exact same location. Not that this couple isn't awesome - because they are - but for them, travel means something different. For them, it's a change of pace. A chance to let down their hair in a pressure-free environment and shoot the breeze with no stress of worrying about new directions, languages, or foods.

As much as I adore traveling to new places, I have to admit that there's a fair amount of risk involved. And risk opens us to the possibility of failure. 

I'll be honest: for as much adventure as I've experienced, I've known my share of failures. The language barrier is often deeply frustrating. Confusion regarding directions has sent me miles out of the way while on foot. I've nervously bitten down on confusing foods with deeply troubling origins. A minor traffic accident once led to a traffic jam, which led to me missing my reserved bullet train, which led to me buying a backup ticket on a whistle stop route for which only "standing tickets" were left. In case you've never traveled in China, a standing ticket allows you to do just that - to stand on the train until you reached your destination. Mine just happened to be 28 hours away.

On the other hand, some of my travel risks have paid off splendidly. For every spectacular fail, there's been an excellent adventure. Even the massive failures have led to outstanding stories. (Eventually.)

And let's be honest: when all's said and done, outstanding stories are awesome and worth the risk involved.

3. Act like an idiot. Within reason, a bit of idiocy can lead to some of the most amazing memories of your life. 

ESCAPE!

Quick Getaway

Tourist Ruth Experiences History!

"This... was their finest hour."

"Hey! Take a picture of me jumping off this stump!"

Pencils

Invisible bicycle horse

Best. Picture. EVER!

Preparing

Another Brilliant Idea

Amusing Others

Baha!

Lucy & Beef beach jump

SHARK ATTACK!


Wallace Monument



A final note: 

In the interest of honesty, I must admit that even with the above strategies in play, probably not everyone's going to think you're awesome. I can promise, however, if that if you do include these ideas in your life, chances are much higher that the right sorts of people will appreciate you for the right reasons.

And that's awesome. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

How to Survive the Fall

Here we find ourselves knee-deep in September, facing another change in season. If you're one of those people who dreads the onset of colder temperatures, read on. (Even if you're not, read on anyway. I'd hate to think that I typed all of this out for nothing.)

How to Survive the Fall:

1.  Brace Yourselves for Pumpkin-flavored Everything. Cookies, coffees, teas, candies, candles, air fresheners, flavored creamers--you name it. Personally, I don't see the attraction. If I wanted squash-flavored coffee, I'd... well, the point is, I don't. 

But you might, and if so, hooray for you. 

2. Gain Weight. After all, cold temperatures lurk just around the corner, and everyone knows that shiver-worthy temps are bit more bearable with some flesh packed around those cold bones. So go for it.

Pumpkin spice cake, anyone?

3. Develop a Football Season Coping Mechanism. Mine is to curl up with lots of books until it's all over. 

4. Live in a place like Florida. Although some Floridians joke that we don't actually have seasons, the truth is that we actually have two: they're called "Hot" and "Less Hot." (Although some people like to call them "Extra Hot" and "Just Regular Hot," while still others opt for "Hot and Sunny" vs. "Hot and Rainy, " aka "Gross.") 
The only discernible season we all collectively recognize is the one currently upon us: it's called Hurricane Season, and it's officially celebrated from June 1-November 30, with the general heyday reached during October. 

While the rest of you are unpacking your functional scarves and brewing up your pumpkin spice coffees, we're double checking the Doppler forecast, tracking storm systems through the Caribbean, and battening down the hatches in an effort to keep from being blown straight off the map. 

So if you want to know what it really takes to survive the fall, come on down and we'll show you.

Feel free to leave your scarves at home.


Monday, September 9, 2013

How to Feel Blessed

Recently, a team from our church returned from a short-term trip to Haiti. As thrilled as I was to sit and listen to their testimonies of what they'd learned and experienced, I couldn't help but feel a tiny sliver of disquiet; for among the spiritual lessons learned, most team members cited that the trip had taught them above all to be grateful - grateful for the material comfort and benefits that seem to come by birthright to most Americans. 

These comforts and benefits are generally styled as blessings, thus: "I never realized how blessed I truly was."

Please don't misunderstand: I do not discount the testimonies of these dear Christians; nor do I believe that what they've learned and experienced has failed both to give them a deeper appreciation of God's goodness and to help them grow spiritually.  

What concerns me is the deeply-entrenched and widely-held view within Christian circles that material comforts should be equated with blessings. 

Think for a moment about Jesus' most oft-quoted teaching on the nature of being blessed:
Blessed are the affluent, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
Blessed are the comfortable, for they have obtained comfort. 
Blessed are those who do not lack, for they shall inherit the earth. 
Blessed are they that experience financial prosperity, for they shall see God.

Of course we don't say things like that. 

We wouldn't dare. 

Unfortunately, we inadvertently express this attitude every time we thank God that we are "blessed" to have such cozy lives. However, Jesus' intention in the Beatitudes was not to teach us to be thankful for physical benefits, but to draw our focus away from the physical realm entirely in order to focus on the spiritual:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. 

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. 

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. 

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.  

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God. 

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.  

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  

(Matthew 5:3-10)
Don't miss the fact that in the eight blessings that Christ mentions, he doesn't once reference a material comfort or a physical convenience. Instead, he highlights the spiritual struggles that work in us the greatest spiritual blessings: the struggle to develop meekness, the struggle to remain pure, the struggle to become a peacemaker, the struggles of mourning and persecution - not to mention the struggle for the humility enough in the first place to admit to our own grinding spiritual poverty.

Notice also that these truths are pronounced in the present tense: not that such individuals will be blessed one day, but that they already are blessed  - right now! 

If this sounds contradictory, remember that most spiritual truth seems paradoxical:
The Christian believes that in Christ he has died, yet he is more alive than before and he fully expects to live forever. He walks on earth while seated in heaven and though born on earth he finds that after his conversion he is not at home here. Like the nighthawk, which in the air is the essence of grace and beauty but on the ground is awkward and ugly, so the Christian appears at his best in the heavenly places but does not fit well into the ways of the very society into which he was born. 
The Christian soon learns that if he would be victorious as a son of heaven among men on earth he must not follow the common pattern of mankind, but rather the contrary. That he may be safe he puts himself in jeopardy; he loses his life to save it and is in danger of losing it if he attempts to preserve it. He goes down to get up. If he refuses to go down he is already down, but when he starts down he is on his way up. 
He is strongest when he is weakest and weakest when he is strong. Though poor he has the power to make others rich, but when he becomes rich his ability to enrich others vanishes. He has most after he has given most away and has least when he possesses most. 
He may be and often is highest when he feels lowest and most sinless when he is most conscious of sin. He is wisest when he knows that he knows not and knows least when he has acquired the greatest amount of knowledge. He sometimes does most by doing nothing and goes furthest when standing still. In heaviness he manages to rejoice and keeps his heart glad even in sorrow. ~ A.W. Tozer, "That Incredible Christian"

The bottom line is that if something in my life draws me from Christ, it is not a blessing; however, everything in my life that sends me running toward Christ not only brings great blessings down the road, but also already is a blessing - right here, right now.

The apostles understood this principle and demonstrated it clearly from the inception of the church in Jerusalem. After Peter and John suffered the first of many arrests, beatings, and harassments for healing the lame man at the Beautiful Gate and continuing to preach in the temple, they are reported to have departed from the presence of their persecutors rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name of Christ (Acts 5:17-41). 

May God give us such spiritual clarity.  

That would indeed be a blessing.


Monday, September 2, 2013

How to Wait for the End



Whether in books, movies, or plays, endings are always difficult to wait for; however, the hope of a satisfying conclusion will keep us holding on through the dark moments, because in our hearts, we feel assured that all of the angst will be worthwhile if only we can see it through to the promise of that last scene. 

Such hopes have kept us wading through books that have broken our hearts, have kept us holding on to a beloved television series long after it went into its final throes of awfulness, and have kept us from walking out of movie theaters after a disheartening plot twist nearly melted our brains.

Our dependence on a good end is so great that a dissatisfying conclusion (or worst of all, no conclusion) will make or break our relationship with a story forever. Witness my near breakup with Charles Dickens over the various endings of Great Expectations and my meltdown of galactic proportions over Connie Willis's brain-bending, heart-rending Passage.

The salient point is that without a happy end -- or at the very least, a satisfying end -- we tend to question the worthiness of the story itself. 

Although we may not have given this idea conscious consideration, the same principle holds true in life as it does in story: when certain aspects of our lives have lacked closure or led to dissatisfying conclusions, we tend to feel somewhat at a loss. 

Betrayed. 

Cheated out of our time and devoid of a sense of purpose.

If you've experienced such a disheartening turn of events, take courage. There is hope.

Remember that the ultimate end is still on the way, and you need to wait for it.

How to Wait for the End:

1. Endure the passage of time. As much as I hate to harp on the cliched idea that time heals all wounds, remember that the cliche developed for a reason: it generally holds true. 

Think of the greatest stories you've ever experienced -- the ones you felt so deeply that they've nearly become part of you. Think of what made those stories so vivid - so epic. Epic romances are generally considered epic by nature of the sheer amount of time that the lovers spend apart. Epic struggles of good and evil aren't won in a day. Epic victories aren't achieved without great loss.

The key difference between art and life, of course, is that the struggles, the pains, the tragedies, and the turmoils of life can't be zipped through within the same amount of time it takes to read a few chapters of a book or watch a few scenes of a film. 

For us, these trials must be lived through hour by hour, moment by moment, and second by second... until the resolution comes. 

Even though we hate the process, we must remember that without the passage of time, closure is often not possible. 

So don't rush the end. 

Be patient and endure.

2. Remember that whether or not the ending is a happy or a sad one depends on where you place the ending.

I read once somewhere that most of Shakespeare's comedies end with a wedding while many of his tragedies begin with one. 

Although any person with half a brain knows that the "Happily Ever After" concept is myth, in our media-obsessed culture that gluts itself on on entertainment, we are constantly in danger of losing sight of the overarching narratives of our lives. 

Take one aspect of my life as an example:

If my teaching career were to be retold on the big screen, then where the film ended would determine the overall takeaway. If the the script were to cover only the ups and downs of my first year in the classroom, the story would actually end on a dark note: by the end of that awful first year, I'd actually made the decision to quit teaching, had refused a contract with the school where I'd been teaching, and had moved across the state for a fresh start, hoping never to see the inside of a classroom again.

The story of how I was teaching again within months reads more like a comedy than anything else. At the time, though, I felt only tragedy. It's only now - as I put that pocket of time into context with everything that came after it - that I'm able to look back on it within a framework that makes sense.

It's this concept we need to cling to when we're enduring circumstances that are less than ideal.

At the risk of spoilers, allow me to remind you that Frodo's journey didn't end in Shelob's lair, that the curtain of WWII didn't fall during the London Blitz, and that the Gospels don't conclude with the Crucifixion. 

Those moments were black, but they weren't the end - they were the darkness before the dawn.

So. 

When you're ready to throw in the towel, remember VE Day.

When you're feel that you've reached a dissatisfying end, look for the ships to the Grey Havens.

And when you're waiting in dark, remember that you're awaiting the Resurrection.