Before you go thinking it’s trapped in jail after protesting at a Trump rally somewhere, this is me having a little fun courtesy of the good people at One Teen Story, who shipped me a box with numerous copies of my issue.
If you’re thinking about subscribing to the magazine but want to see what the paper version looks like, here’s your chance for a free preview. The first ten people to post comments here–okay, comments that aren’t spammy or casting shade on my parents’ marital status–each get one.
Note–I will need a mailing address in order to send yours, but don’t include that in your comment. We can do that via email. Also, I won’t sell or give your mail (or email) address to any loopy conspiracy theory mailing lists or direct marketers. Or anyone. Promise.
My story “Making the Cut” is this month’s issue of One Teen Story. I like the way they leverage the online aspects of their publication (though I’m also looking forward to seeing the print version): there’s a video at YouTube, a “teaser” page, an interview with me at their blog , and the cover and my interview are featured on their Facebook and Twitter pages.
Whew! Got tired just linking all that.
Anyway, for a mere $1.50 a month you can subscribe and get a longish short story every month–so at the end of a year your $18 will have purchased you two fine short story collections, one in paper form and one you can cart around on a phone or tablet. A fine gift for that hard-to-buy-for high school student on your list (at least it was for three on MY list…).
In other news, the “Robo4ce” screenplay won the Gold award from the Beverly Hills Screenplay Contest (Family division), and in what should really stop being surprising anytime now, won Best Feature Screenplay at the SoCal Film Festival. I was fortunate to be able to attend the last, and after a number of conversations with other screenwriters and the staff–all wonderful people–things came into sharper focus for me.
I also had a blast at the Final Draft Awards, held at Paramount Studios. I got to hover over Robert Bloch’s typewriter, gaze longingly at some Billy Wilder scripts, and chat with yet more writers (waves at Diane Musselman of Dancing Forward Productions who has at least two films under her belt, and Victoria Murad of Lilla Cardea Productions, who just wrote and produced a short: Esmeralda and the Audition).
So, yeah, February has been very, very good to me. Busy, but good. More busy goodness to come.
So I’m revisiting an older novel of mine when I realize I have two, count them two, expository phone conversations between the same two and a half characters (it makes sense in context) in one chapter.
Well, that’s inefficient, I think. There must be a way of combining them.
So I pull them both out and start in. Except it becomes obvious after about ten seconds that there are two of them because they refer to two different events, separated by some distance, which happen to the parties on the phone. And at some point in the manuscript’s history, for some reason, I switched the order of the events.
For reference, this is like the writer’s version of that nightmare where you’re taking a final for a class you forgot to attend. And you have no pants. And the bats swooping down at you are quoting Milton.*
Cursing the inattentive author, I laid the triggering events, the conversations, and the transitions between them out in six different documents, like a watchmaker spreading the gears out on a cloth.
And when I finished, I had some gears left over. They must have been doing something, right? Or maybe not. To switch analogies, sometimes a sentence or an exchange in a conversation or even a whole paragraph is like one of those interstate exits out in the country that says: No Services. While this may accurately reflect real life, fiction is not journalism (though good journalism knows what is relevant to the story as well).
The superfluous passages that are trickier to spot (and I didn’t get this about the novel in question until I did my watchmaker imitation) are the ones that ARE doing something, but not something you need, at least not right there. To flip back to the interstate exit analogy, it’s like being low on gas and seeing exits that have food, lodging, camping, a hospital, a historic district, and a community theater–but which manage to be entirely devoid of gas stations.
And if there’s one thing you don’t want your story to do, it’s run out of gas.
*-Everyone has that dream, right?
To-do list for the next week or so, more or less in this order:
Finish notes on the friend’s novel WUTA went over this week. Finish revisions on YA short story, send it back to One Teen Story. I love working with engaged editors. Finish v7 of Robo4ce, with the suggestions from Howard Allen’s coverage at ScriptDoctor.com fully integrated. I love working with engaged people in general.
- Finish v1 of Cover Crop, inserting another payoff at the start of Act III and the accompanying setup in Act II, then splitting one sequence up to bracket another before the midpoint.
Continue to polish Friend so I won’t be totally behind the curve if the Angry Robot open call turns into an ask.
- Not blogging after this (unless I get Good News of some sort).
Guess I picked the wrong week to stop huffing espresso grounds. Although they kept on getting stuck in my moustache anyway…
So the screenplay for Robo4ce continued to perform well in contests as 2015 rolled into 2016; in addition to its finish as a top 3 finalist in the Final Draft Big Break contest, it reached the semifinals of the Reel Authors Screenplay Contest, was the Animation finalist for the Park City Table Read my Screenplay competition, and is still an active semifinalist in the SoCal Film Festival screenplay contest.
For the statistically inclined, of the 17 contests I entered it in this year that have come to some level of public announcement, it’s made at least the semis in 10, the finals in 7, and won its category (or won outright) in 5. To a new guy those numbers look pretty good.
Here’s why that worries me.
In the vast majority of fields of human endeavor, in raw game theory terms, there’s relatively little payoff for being better than “good enough.” This is not because most humans are inveterate slackers–though I don’t dismiss that possibility–but because complex systems, left to themselves, are going to naturally end up that way. In evolutionary terms, it boils down to the punchline of the joke where the guy is putting on running shoes and tells his buddy “I don’t have to outrun the bear.”
That carries over into things like commerce, industry, and other necessities of modern survival. If you have two assembly lines, one of which is set up so that it will go faster if everyone is really good at their particular jobs, while the other is set up so that it will go at the same speed so long as no one on it screws up, I promise you that second one will be in business long after the first one dries up and blows away. For most purposes, the prospect of predictability is more important than that of excellence, and it’s waaaay easier to maintain.
(In a way, this is probably a good thing, as half of the human race stubbornly remains below average, and throwing them out of work would lead to unforeseen consequences See: upcoming Robopocolypse. But I digress.)
The arts are not like that.
“Good enough” to be considered for publication or production doesn’t cut it. Here, everyone wears running shoes. Including the bears.
When I entered Robo4ce in its first contests nine months ago, my goal was to get an idea of where I stood in the field. Okay, maybe it was more along the lines of determining whether writing screenplays would be a total waste of my time. I’m happy to say the answer seems to be No. I’m even happier to say the screenplay has room for improvement, which I’m currently working on (with nod to Howard Allen at scriptdoctor.com)
Because I’m not trying to sell one screenplay. I’m trying to sell the next one too. And the novels. And the rest of my creative output, so long as I keep on outputting it. Maybe it’s because I’m still haunted by the words of a long-ago girlfriend–you make the world’s best first impression–or maybe it’s because I know how often writers struggle to make their first real sale and then run out of gas. In any case, the sophomore slump is a real thing, if you let it be one.
I would prefer to make an even better second impression.
As you might gather from the title and the let’s-see-if-I-get-a-takedown-notice promotional graphic, I’m going to discuss the new Star Wars here. Not right away–the first few paragraphs are clean–but after that anything goes. This discussion will not only include spoilers, but will center on them, at least insofar as these blog discussions center on anything; much like the orbit of Pluto around the Sun, or the orbit of a drunken frat boy around the fire at a wienie roast, I suspect it will be highly elliptical.
But you have been warned.
So my son and I went to a Thursday night showing in IMAX 3D AND SAT IN THE SECOND ROW HOLD ON CAPS LOCK…there, that’s better. After eleven previews, taking up a full half hour of waking life neither one of us will get back and I, at least, can’t afford to lose these days, the Lucasfilm logo appeared, followed by those familiar storybook words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”
What followed was both a pretty good movie and more Star Wars-y in the first half hour than the three prequel films lumped together. It also had some really nice screenwriting tricks at work regarding how one introduces multiple protagonists, but I’ll leave that for other, more seasoned commentators, and proceed directly to the spoiler and rumentation thereon.
Last chance to stop scrolling.
Okay. When Han sees Kylo Ren–that is, his son Ben–carrying Rei’s unconscious figure up the ramp into the First Order shuttle, Harrison Ford does a good job of conveying layered emotions. He’s upset at the action of the moment, obviously, and more so at his helplessness to stop it. But there’s something deeper, something primal at work in his face, because the helplessness runs deeper. It’s the face of a father as he realizes: My child is a monster.
It’s a commonplace that the greatest fear a parent faces–and we do, sometimes on a daily basis–is the death of their child. I don’t think that’s the whole story, though. I think the fear is more complicated. Parents fear losing their children. It’s a little paradoxical, since we know, even hope, that we WILL lose them on one level, when they grow into adults and live their own lives. The loss of death cuts those lives short prematurely, and make no mistake, it’s a dark possibility to dwell on.
But not the darkest. Ford and J. J. Abrams (and Adam Driver, who plays Ren/Ben as a tantrum-prone eternal teenager, pointing up that the Dark Side’s approach is really one of permanent, rage-filled infantilization) conspire to show us the worst kind of loss, where a young life is not so much severed cleanly as twisted off. If the death of a child is an erasure of self–theirs and by extension the parent’s–the child who becomes a monster is a monument to not only our failure, but the hovering possibility of catastrophic failure every child represents. The dead, at least, have the decency to stay dead. Monsters are in our face–and our headlines–all too often.
Which winds us back inexorably to the second spoiler. When Ren/Ben said “I don’t know if I have the strength to do what I must” I knew what was coming, because in the broadest sense, he’s only doing what all children must do–separate themselves from their parents. The problem is that he’s not doing any such thing. He’s killing one father (and in a way that beats back the Oedipal implications a bit, killing a part of Leia at the same moment, as Carrie Fisher’s superb few seconds of reaction back at base show) to get what he thinks is a better one–the Dark Side, represented by Supreme Leader Snoke, but personified by Ben’s grandfather Darth Vader.
(Side note: the Skywalker clan is one seriously fucked-up family. Anyone else notice that? I mean, we’re talking William Faulkner/Tennessee Williams levels of fucked-up here. And now I find myself imagining a scene in a VERY alternate universe where they’re all sitting down for a Thanksgiving dinner, and the cranberry relish is the subject of a telekinetic tug of war…)
In that light, the last gesture Han makes, of touching the face of the man who was once his son and is now a mass murderer, is at once tender and utterly pathetic, a sort of hapless well I tried that’s the only thing a parent can possibly muster in response to a monster.
And yet, there’s Rei. A lot of speculation is floating around about her being another child of Han and Leia, helped along by the resemblance between Daisy Ridley and Natalie Portman. I don’t think it matters, because when the movie makes the point of how easily Han slips into the role of the father Rei never knew it’s only verbalizing what everyone in the audience picked up on already: Han is this movie’s Obi-Wan, to both Rei and Finn. And Mentors don’t generally make it through the story.
(That’s another Skywalker thing…parents missing left and right. No wonder Disney bought the franchise.)
So the question is: how does it work out that the child you raise from infancy rejects you, and the one you pick up en passant as a teen and know only for a few days doesn’t? Guess we’ll find out some of that in the next two movies…as well as how Luke, who seems to have learned all too well Obi-Wan’s patented methodology for screwing up with your best pupil, fits into the whole parent/mentor role. He didn’t seem all that inclined to take his father’s light saber a second time, did he?
Speaking of which, I did extort a promise from my boy, as we drove home at 1:30 in the morning, not to spear me with a light saber when he’s older. It seemed prudent at the time.
LONDON FILM AWARDS
Fifth place in the First-time Screenwriter category for Robo4ce. Odd bit of instant wistfulness here, since you only get to enter once, obviously. I feel fortunate to have come up with something like Robo4ce on my first go, and the possibility of a sophomore slump isn’t even…
*Looks at page count on next project*
Ah, gotta run.