It's that time of year again when I find myself compelled to scamper around watching as many Oscar films as I possibly can before the big event. (Sort of a PokémonGO activity for movie fanatics.) This year, I've sort of outdone myself and broken down the walls into genres I tend not to care about so much. Arrival and Hell or High Water were the biggest departures from my book and film comfort zone, and I am so glad I decided. How the academy is picking a best movie from this year's insanely moving and powerful nominees, I have no idea.
And as many other writers, I hope a special spot in my heart for both original screenplay and adapted screenplay awards. Realistically I will sadly never grace the screen with Leo or Brad, but what if...just what if a short story or book I write ends up getting adapted by a screenwriter? Or better yet, I hone my skills and adapt something myself? There's a lot to be learned from the adapted screenplays which is why whether it's Brokeback Mountain or Hidden Figures, I often try to read the source story first. Watching what translates to screen is an excellent exercise in learning how to edit the fat down and make dialogue and action points more authentic. In fact, doing so for a number of years helped me evolve my own writing activity for my short stories, one that I'd love to share and strongly encourage if you're looking to discern the heart of your story.
It's not too terribly difficult, either.
First, go to a site like First Draft and read one of their tutorials. If you fall in love with doing this, you might progress to purchasing screenwriting software, but it's not necessary. Plenty of free ones out there. Celtx is a personal fave of mine.
Once you've learned the ropes, highlight digitally or with a good old-fashioned highlighter all the lines of dialogue in your story. These are your bread and butter and have to carry themselves well without excessive narration. In isolation, you may find that some of the lines fall flat - a good hint that in the story itself they need more oomph and purpose.
This part is tricky. Start slashing narration. Look, instead, for the action moments and include more of those. The narration is still needed, but a screenplay visually leans on dialogue and action. Narration is on a need to know basis. If it's not essential, it doesn't make it to the script.
Finally, and this is where having a writing group counts, ask a few folks to read the script for you. If they stumble over the dialogue, there's a problem. It will also allow you to see how easily they fall into character and if you've created characters that have different voices or are they really echoes of one another. Take notes. Lots of notes.
And when all is said and done, return to your story with a fresh eye to reexamine what could be cut and what perhaps is missing to build the tension, to flesh out the characters, and to give your story a pulse. All of this may seem like an extra phase in the editing process, but I promise, it's fun and a need way to stretch your brain in terms of writing skills.
And who knows, maybe you'll fall in love with screenwriting and I'll see you on that Oscar screen in a few years. Happy writing!
These shoes drive me insane. They’re stunning and overpriced but fit like a dream and make any ho-hum outfit dazzling. I found them online and took a leap of faith ordering a brand and size I’d never tried before, and the retail gods smiled down and they arrived in all their sparkling perfection. They were actually the inspiration for my Instagram account FashionAndFiction pairing two of my loves, books and shoes. How does this relate to writing in any way shape or form? Oh trust me, it does.
I save these shoes and rarely wear them, worried they’ll scuff or the heel might come off. But really, what good do they do in my closet, nestled between two pairs of everyday pumps? And as much as I logically know that these shoes were made for walking, I still snugly lock them away. Worse yet, sometimes I do this to my writing.
I don’t take risks when I should. I harbor plot ideas that feel too wild or hide away poetic bits that read more purple prose than I’d like. I keep them tucked in the corners of my brain firmly labeled with yellow caution tape. These ideas watch others come to fruition in stories and essays, in poems and play scenes. Because whenever I sit down to write the really risky stuff, I get the sensation of standing on a writing precipice and what if, what if, the ideas don’t take off? Then my precious writing time has been squandered on mischief rather than the slow and steady projects that are safer bets.
But with safety comes complacency. Safer ideas are often derivative of one another. They chug along and are enjoyable to write and complete, because there is a defined ending and no mental gymnastics required. And there is a time and place for them. They are satisfying and cozy, a literary form of grilled cheese and tomato soup, the mahogany loafers I can always count on because they’re already scuffed and a little beaten-down so I can really go anywhere, do anything, in them without pushing any boundaries.
The jeopardy in lively solely in these safe writings is that the wilder side to writing, the big risks and the big payoffs, don’t often stand around waiting for the proper moment. In fact they are risky because they’re like a maelstrom that arrives while you’re in the shower or manifest from a wild scene you’ve witnessed, a catastrophe in the news, the urgency of the human condition, and they need to be welcomed and managed as handily as you’d ride a rollercoaster from start to stop. Screaming and shaking and possibly breaking off into unchartered territory.
And that’s what writers, and artists and scientists and many other professionals in creative fields, are for. To push the boundaries of what we know and what we like. To show the world how things could be. One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Egan, always takes risks. Whether it’s a chapter written in PowerPoint or a story fully developed on Twitter, she pays fair homage to her wild ideas. And they create new spaces in the literary world.
So, I charge you to think back to the nuttiest idea you’ve had, whether it’s a play written backwards or an edible poetry collection, and give it a shot. Who knows, you might unleash something incredible or break a literary mold. And even if you don’t, your creative brain will thank you for the exercise. Personally, I’m taking those shoes out for a spin and beginning a chancy short story because today is a great day to start, don’t you think?
Snow days were made for writers and a wonderful affirmation that teaching and being a writer in the wings go hand in hand. Rarely does the universe hit the freeze button and say, go ahead, write your heart out. Nothing else is required of you. Today is a frozen moment in time, and I plan on using every minute.
I'm wrapping up a novel that has been a long time coming. It was an idea that turned into three poems and a short story, the characters scattered all over the map (and the internet). The end didn't come easily. It felt like an impossible game of tug-of-war, letting down the main characters whichever way I pulled. I went to bed last night wondering when I would sneak in a few minutes to wrestle with the ending, and this morning as the alarm went off and the call from my school district closing the high school simultaneously snapped me out of bed, I sat down and finished. There wasn't an epiphany. I didn't dream of the perfect ending, but somehow having the responsibilities of the day lifted off of my shoulders let things fall into place.
Those writers gifted with unlimited resources and unlimited time are few and far between. For the rest of us mere mortals, it's not just about finding the minutes to write. It's about silencing the voice reminding us that there is laundry to be done and what about the dog, he's dying for a walk and are you sure you did your taxes already? Time itself isn't such an unusual commodity. It manifests in doctor's waiting rooms and the space between work and the gym. Physical minutes and hours can be plucked from the day, but using them solely for writing, that's the tricky part. Climbing into the world you're creating, hushing the world hanging around you, is a sometimes impossible challenge. Not because one is better than the other but because they compete. They fight like maniacs, and at the end of the day the real world always wins. Its weight is tangible. Its urgency, undeniable.
I am a routine writer. Every morning whether it's for fifteen minutes or two hours depending on when I can eject myself from bed, I write. But of those days, only half, possibly a third, are ones where I win. Where I put up the shade that allows me to shut my eyes and see the characters twiddling their thumbs, waiting to be played with like dolls on a shelf. The other days I drudge through. I bump my head against the wall between this world and that trying to get the sensation that I'm over there. But my worries and my realities win over and those pages go in the file labeled, hey at least I wrote.
Whatever forces of God or nature blessed me with a snow day today, I owe you. Bigtime. Before the sun came out, when the snow was settling on the real world, I was able to slip off into my own little Narnia and give a few characters closure. And that is truly priceless.
Writing has always been an escape, a passion, and a friend. And I love the fact that in my free time and through my career I can help others discover their voice, too.